Holiday parties, gift giving, time spent with loved ones. There’s something so magical about this “most wonderful time of year.” But with the Christmas cards, seasons greetings, and festive music often comes something much less wonderful — chronic stress and an increased risk of a heart attack. It can be hard to stay centered during the holiday season.
Though Christmas usually means a bit of time away from work, the added pressures and expectations from friends, family members, and yourself can often be worse than the pressures of your job. Busy schedules, overspending, and overcommitment can quickly spiral out of control, leaving you facing the New Year burned out and exhausted.
This is supposed to be a time of cheer, but it often feels like the opposite. How can you stay centered and focused on your well-being this holiday season? Let’s dig into some practical ways to protect your heart and enjoy good tidings of great joy this Christmas.
Why is holiday stress so dangerous?
As we’ve well established, any chronic stress can be deadly. However, holiday stress is often intensified. Since the holiday season is such a whirlwind, with parties, family gatherings, and gift exchanges all clustered into just a few weeks, those feelings of stress can quickly overtake your systems, leading to a flood of stress hormones like cortisol and an elevated parasympathetic state.
This type of stress can increase inflammation, impair your immune system, destroy your gut microbiome, and impede mental and physical health — which all contribute to cardiovascular issues. A 12-year study published in the journal Circulation found that about one-third more deaths from ischemic heart disease in December and January than from June through September. While lack of sunshine certainly contributes, the stress and overindulgence of the holiday season play a major role in these cardiac events.
According to research, “People in the United States are more likely to feel their stress increases rather than decreases during the holidays. The holidays can be a hectic time for many, and a lack of money, a lack of time, and the hype and commercialism of the season causes increased stress for people in this country.” The study suggests that people often engage in sedentary behaviors to cope with holiday stress, such as watching TV, eating and drinking excessively, and oversleeping.
Here are a few practical ways to stay centered, maintain your “Zen” during the holiday season, and start the New Year off right.
Let go of weighty expectations
The holidays come with a wealth of expectations—pressures from friends, family, coworkers, and of course, the pressures you put on yourself. We often feel obligated to create the magic of Christmas for those in our lives. This usually comes at the detriment of enjoyment and health.
This season, let go of those expectations, focus on what brings you joy, and recognize that most of the things you are stressing about don’t matter in the end. Your family and friends would much rather spend Christmas with the healthiest, happiest version of you than unwrap the perfect present or enjoy a four-course meal.
Instead of scrolling through social media with its perfectly curated and stylized version of Christmas, accept the sometimes messy or imperfect reality of your own life and embrace the joys that come with it. And remember, those social media feeds don’t always portray the whole picture.
If necessary, take a social media detox over the holiday season. This can help you avoid comparing yourself to others and negate the stress of unrealistic expectations.
Don’t neglect your health
While many people set aside their health goals from Thanksgiving to the New Year to enjoy holiday parties and stacks of Christmas cookies, this isn’t doing your body any favors. Instead of going off the rails with your health and trying to recover good habits in January, make conscious choices that allow you to maintain your standard of living.
During holiday parties and get-togethers, bring a healthy dish that you can enjoy or eat before you go, if necessary. Gather the family and take a walk after dinner, or encourage a brisk round of ultimate frisbee or a bike ride. You can even crank up the Christmas music and start a dance party or do some family stretches.
Instead of allowing the holidays to sap your enthusiasm for health, use them as a time to clue others into the joys of healthy living. You are not depriving your body but protecting it.
Stick to a budget
One of the biggest stressors of the holiday season comes from the wallet. Many spend heedlessly, dropping thousands of dollars on presents, traveling, new clothing for parties, and decorations. Remember, your Christmas joy isn’t measured by cost.
Many people appreciate thoughtful, homemade gifts more than generic, expensive store-bought ones. Decorations and clothes you used last year will work just as well, and if they don’t, secondhand stores are always a great place to start.
Buying things that you can’t afford and making poor financial decisions is a huge source of stress that is easily avoided with a little planning and intentionality. Set a budget early in the season and plan out your expenses, so you’re not burdened by undue financial strain or shocking credit card bills once the tree is packed away.
Prioritize what really matters
Staying centered during the holiday season means avoiding detours that distract you from the real intention of the season. It is a time of gratitude, kindness, and giving from the heart — not a time of burnout, obligatory presents, and stressful social situations. You have control over your Christmas and can only make it a time of peace and joy.
Don’t let family squabbles, disappointing plans, or stress get in the way of your enjoyment. Practice mindful meditation and take quiet time away to focus on your mental wellness. Intentional breathing exercises are a great way to refocus your mind and recenter your body. Or, take a break and go for a solo walk. Whatever you need to do to maintain that peace.
Stick to a routine as much as possible
Hopefully, you have a healthy routine that involves daily exercise outdoors in the sunshine, quality, organic food, and mindfulness activities. If you do, don’t neglect it over the holidays! This is when a routine can help you stay on track and avoid many stressors that arise at Christmas.
Outline a schedule of your planned activities and invitations. This will help you avoid over-committing. If you are invited to something that hampers your schedule or routine, don’t be afraid to say yes! Make a list of your must-dos” to ensure that you make time for what is important. Traditions will change, but each Christmas will look a little different. Be willing to accept change and create new memories that will last a lifetime.
Mindful awareness of your body is also an excellent way to check in with yourself in busy, hectic times. Go to a quiet room and sit comfortably. Take stock of all five senses — tuning into each one and checking in with yourself. What do you taste, hear, see, smell, and feel in the present moment? Where does your body ache or feel tight? Pair this activity with some gentle stretching or self-massage.
One of the most stressful things about the holiday season is finding the perfect gift for everyone in your life. Avoid this stress by downloading and browsing our Holiday Gift Guide! We’ve compiled a list of our favorite health gifts that will delight everyone on your list.
Christmas is a time of love, forgiveness, and putting others before yourself, but it doesn’t mean your health should suffer. Give where you can, but don’t overextend yourself or bring on unnecessary stressors. Nothing will ever be perfect, but it’s okay! Wishing you a merry Christmas season!
Eat well, Live well, Think well
Medical Review: Dr. Lauren Lattanza 2022