December brings festive parties, fun times with family, favourite traditions… and stress. How much stress? According to a Healthline survey, the combination of joy and pressure that makes up the month of December means that more than 60% of us find the holiday season somewhat to very stressful.
Considering the many factors that make up holiday stress: the tricky family politics, the joys of winter weather, busy schedules getting in the way of regular exercise, the endless appetizers, and of course the extra cash outflow that’s synonymous with the season, the real question is how do we NOT end up feeling this way.
One study found that Canadians spend about $1,500 extra in the month of December, Americans about $1000. That can definitely impact your budget! And for many people, that financial hit just adds insult to injury. It’s not surprising many of us end December feeling as though we need a holiday from our holiday.
Have you ever noticed that the gut-brain connection kicks into overdrive in December? It makes sense. There’s extra stress, and of course there’s also extra food. And to further complicate matters, it’s often the kind of food that can wreak havoc with your gut.
Every part of your digestive system can be affected. When cortisone kicks in, your esophagus can go into spasm, reduced digestive activity can mean that food sits in your stomach like a brick, and blood flow can slow down in the gut as your body prioritizes the blood supply to the muscles - also known as “fight or flight” mode. This shift can lead to an imbalance of bacteria in your gut that results in cramping, diarrhea, constipation, and a variety of other digestive issues. The whole process isn’t exactly festive.
How can you combat the Great December Bellyache? Taking a few minutes to meditate or breathe deeply before a meal can trigger your body’s “relaxation response”, switching on your parasympathetic nervous system which controls digestion. This brings the blood flow back to the stomach and intestines, allowing digestion to take place as it should. As an added bonus, this practice may also lead to more mindful eating at a time of year when eating more consciously can be very beneficial. One study even found a correlation between meditation and increased vegetable and lower meat consumption (without any prompting of participants to choose certain foods).
It’s a good idea to increase your consumption of fermented foods like kefir, yoghurt, and kimchi, or even take a probiotic supplement during times of stress to help maintain healthy gut bacteria.
Anxiety, stress, and back pain often come together in a distressing trifecta. To make matters worse, they often intensify each other. How does that work? When you’re stressed, your muscles tense up. That creates more stress, and more tension. In fact, chronic stress - and chronic pain - can eventually rewire the way your brain works.
To further complicate this dynamic, many people find that tense, rigid torso muscles restrict breathing. Again this creates a vicious cycle, since shallow breathing can exacerbate pain. So when you’re in pain, you can’t breathe as well, and when you can’t breathe as well, you feel more pain.
It’s no wonder many complain of back pain at this time of the year - especially when you factor in physical stressors like shovelling snow or decorating the house.
Paying more attention to your posture is a good first step to getting a handle on back pain. It may sound simple, but working with a healthcare practitioner on your everyday movement patterns at work and at home can bring your body back into alignment, reducing tension, relaxing your muscles and improving your breathing - all of which have a positive effect on breaking the cycle of pain.
Also, consider indulging yourself with some pain-relief treats! (After all, self-care does not need to take a break during the busy season.) Invest in a restorative yoga class or a therapeutic massage. Not only will you relieve some of the emotional pressure that comes with the season, manual therapies can help break the cycle of stress and back pain.
Do visions of sugarplums dance in your head in December? Or would nightmares about bill payments be a more accurate description?
In addition to financial stress, many other factors can impact your sleep in December. We’re often eating and drinking more, as well as staying out later.
However, it’s still important to maintain a solid sleep hygiene routine during these busy times. Try to stick to your regular schedule as much as possible (yes, even on weekends). Create a sleep-inducing bedtime routine. That means putting your phone and other devices away a couple of hours before bedtime, and keeping them out of your bedroom while you sleep. (Many people say that they need their phone alarm to wake them up, but an old-fashioned alarm clock can also do the job.)
Making sure your room is cool, dark, and quiet is another essential element of a good night’s sleep. Fortunately, many products are available that can optimize your environment, including blackout shades, white noise machines, humidifiers, and fans.
Effective supplements are available to help you through a rough patch and get you back on track with your sleep.
Many people have good experiences with melatonin, for example. An important point about melatonin is that it is made naturally in your body to bring on sleep, so it has few side effects. It can, however, interact with some medications so always talk to your doctor before taking melatonin, especially if you already take a prescription antidepressant or sleep aid.
Valerian contains a number of compounds that may help promote calmness, improve stress response and maintaining adequate levels of mood-stabilizing brain chemicals. It’s been coined nature’s valium and has been known to work well to aid in sleep issues (mainly insomnia).
Magnesium is a mineral that helps the muscles to physically relax and let go, making a magnesium supplement or Epsom Salt bath a safe and effective part of a relaxing bedtime routine.
Of course, the best way to treat stress is to tackle it at the source. And at this time of the year, we’re all too often the source of our own stress. Maybe we got so caught up in finding the “perfect” presents and hosting the “perfect” party that we forgot the real purpose of the holidays - connection. The plain truth is that a memorable holiday does not have to cost a lot of money or stress if we stay mindful of what the holiday is really about.
In fact, at least one study has found that the best gifts are experiences, not things. And often, the key component of a memorable experience is the company you’re with. So instead of pushing yourself to buy more or do more, consider putting some time aside to just hang out with your friends and family, or attend community events. In the end, human connection is what we all want for the holidays.