After a year of discussing ways to live a healthier version of yourself, we are finally approaching the happiest, busiest and, ironically, most stressful time of the year. Sure, for the kids (and possibly the kid in us all), this is the time for chestnuts, Santa, presents and sleigh bells. However, for the adult in us, the holidays bring with them an element of anxiety, whether that stress stems from the fear of financial strains, having to deal with overcrowded malls or dealing with family and friends visiting for the festivities.
Aside from social anxiety plaguing some of us around this time of year, if you have invested in “healthy” resolutions since the start of the year, holidays can be stressful when managing your eating and exercise regimens. Everywhere you turn, especially on television and social media, you encounter countless images and recipes for all things holidays, from mirror-glazed doughnuts to 15-layer cheesecakes with a bazillion grams of fat and sugar hidden behind the designer icing. Gone are the days of simple raspberry glaze and a classic doughnut.
For some, the holidays are not a reason to fret; in fact, they treat the holidays as a passing state of mind that soon will be a mere fragment down memory lane of holidays past. However, if you find holidays have a special place on your list of anxiety- and stress-inducing triggers, then it is essential you follow a scientifically executed plan involving a few lifestyle modifications, including but not limited to nutritional remedies and an exercise regimen to help you get through the rough waters in time for the 2019 health resolutions.
You are what you eat, the adage goes. I like to take this wisdom one step further and add that not only are you what you eat, but also what you might think. Studies show that neurological perceptions have a significant impact on one’s levels of stress and anxiety in addition to how we cope with these emotions routinely. So, the first step in dealing with holiday stress and anxiety is to adopt an attitude of positive thinking and find ways to control negative triggers.
Mindful practices can help change or rewire the brain. Whether that includes taking time away from your daily schedule to play an instrument, attend a dance class, practice meditation, read a self-help book, hike or pump a little iron in the gym, tend to your personal calling — sort of like an adult version of time out, except in this case you are taking structured time away from the negativity and toxicity that can accompany the holidays to rewire those anxiety-triggering stimuli within the neurons.
Don’t let Santa trick you into eating your anxiety and stress. Slow down on the cookies or other sugar-laden desserts and fancy cocktails. Holiday treats can be tempting, and before you know it, you might have consumed the very thing that can trigger migraines, cause mood swings or enhance the feeling of anxiety, sadness or depression — sugar. Studies show that sugar is far more addictive than any drug (prescription or recreational) with which one might dabble. Sugar consumption also creates an environment within the brain to mimic feelings of anxiety and depression as a way of feeding this addiction. So, essentially, the brain is taken over by cravings, and when not met, the cravings present themselves as neurological triggers, i.e. mood swings and body aches and pain.
To avoid caving to sugar cravings, arm yourself with an arsenal of nutritional remedies to help you get through sugar triggers. For example, if baking is a tradition, look for ways to replace sugar in the recipe with healthier options such as unsweetened applesauce, mashed bananas, seeded and unsweetened dates, and raisins. Consuming foods rich in soluble fiber, like apples, oranges, berries and pears, can aid in minimizing sugar cravings in addition to aiding in reduction of bad cholesterol, balancing blood sugar and preventing gastrointestinal disorders. Have some homemade yogurt parfait for breakfast; the proteins and probiotics from Greek yogurt will help fight sugar cravings and keep your mood uplifted. The fruit will provide antioxidants to replenish nutrients in the skin (an organ that suffers the most in those who consume a lot of sugar and alcohol).
Spice it up
The holidays are synonymous with baking, hot cocoa and the smell of nutmeg and cinnamon, all of which can reduce stress and offer the brain a sense of comfort by altering the levels of dopamine (a feel-good brain chemical). A warm beverage such as hot cocoa can help relax the brain due to the warming sensation and elevation in body temperature it can impart during the colder months. Spice up that hot cocoa by adding cinnamon and a pinch of turmeric. Cinnamon can help balance blood sugar and insulin responses; it can also help curb sugar cravings.
The holiday season is also the time of the year when the flu virus is predominant; with all that handshaking and socializing, you might need some preventive care to help you get through the seasonal stressors. Turmeric acts as an anti-inflammatory and offers protection from viruses and bacterial infections. Another spice to consider would be ginger. Add it to cookies when baking. Ginger, much like cinnamon, can tame anxiety and help keep the digestive system in shape for when the holiday bloat makes an appearance.
Last, adding rosemary to holiday recipes can help deal with depression, anxiety and stress. Studies support the medicinal properties of rosemary when it comes to neurological triggers.
Enjoy the season
Since the advent of social media sites such as Pinterest, it is hard to not get sucked into an amped-up version of holiday festivities. There’s nothing wrong with adding creativity to the season; in fact, some crafting might aid in reducing stress and anxiety. However, an incessant obsession with a social media-driven version of holidays is a big neurological enemy. One can increase feel-good hormones such as dopamine by ingesting a bowl of ice cream or making impulse buys online, but drowning yourself in sugar and credit card debt might only temporarily raise the happiness index. Studies show volunteering for a good cause and helping others can increase levels of dopamine far better than a sugar treat, and the levels don’t fade within a few hours like they would with sugar.
Volunteering, budgeting, limiting social media exposure, meditating, exercising and planning healthy menus might help you manage stress and lead to a much calmer and richer holiday season this year.