Holidays and stress are as inseparable as Christmas tree pine needles ground into carpet. This year, COVID-19 is an anxiety amplifier. Many will forgo traditional holiday gatherings, or proceed knowing that a family get together could turn into a super-spreader. The added psychological pressure makes stress management this holiday season critical. We know that stress kills. Here’s what leading health organizations and experts have to say about the importance of managing your holiday stress, and how to go about it.
Just Say No
This one may prove especially difficult for physicians. Residency indoctrinates you to run yourself ragged and put the needs of others before your own. While this spirit is admirable, the consequences are not. You may find yourself under pressure to host or attend gatherings, take trips, or spend as if your income wasn’t affected by the pandemic. According to the Mayo Clinic, you should feel within your rights to say no. “Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed,” the Mayo Clinic writes. “Friends will understand if you can’t participate in every project or activity.” Your line of works makes it more likely to contract COVID-19 on the job than at a family gathering. You’ve taken every precaution to protect your family and loved ones, but what if you’re an asymptomatic carrier? Would you want to put their lives at risk?
Make safe socialization a priority
COVID-19 may make in-person celebrations impossible or difficult. This means opportunities for safe socialization are imperative. We’re all a little burned out on Zoom, but conversations with friends and loved ones work wonders for lifting spirits. A research review published in Psychiatry showed that social support affects our resilience to stress. The resilience may stem from enhanced stress coping abilities that come from communication with friends and loved ones. Even if you don’t feel like it, schedule some Zoom sessions or calls with friends and family. On the family front, perhaps be selective and avoid those who make your blood pressure rise.
Stick to Healthy Habits: Exercise
Let’s begin with exercise. According to a research overview published in the American College of Sports Medicine Health & Fitness Journal, human and animal studies have shown that exercise and physical activity bolster our stress-management capabilities. Finally, exercise may simply give us a break from stressors. After all, it’s hard to worry about your job when you’re gasping for breath or sweating profusely. If you’re not an exerciser already, it’s unlikely that you’ll become a gym-goer in the middle of a pandemic during the holiday season. And if you are fitness fiend, time constraints commensurate with the holidays are going to make following your typical exercise regimen difficult. Let’s keep it simple. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity weekly, plus some muscle-strengthening activity twice weekly. You can hit this goal with 5 weekly 30-minute cardio sessions. But you don’t have to. Researchers say you can split exercise into shorter intervals and still reap the stress-reducing benefits. You could even log 10-15 minutes of aerobic exercise when you’re feeling stressed as a disruptor. No gym access? No problem. Follow these tips to create a fitness routine you can stick to. Then, implement these exercises that you can do anywhere.
Stick to Healthy Habits: Diet
Many of us tend to go off the rails during the holidays. Diet becomes an afterthought. We eat and drink too much, see our waistlines balloon, then feel guilty and stressed about it. Then, there are others who take it to another extreme, agonizing over every calorie. Celebrations become an anxious mess of calorie counting and guilt. The holidays are meant to be a joyful time. COVID-19 has done enough to suck the joy out of the season already. It’s imperative to stick to, but not obsess over, healthy eating. Eat and drink too much, and you’re putting your body under physiological stress. Agonize over your eating habits, and you’re stressing unnecessarily. If you’re concerned with maintaining a healthy diet this holiday season, the pandemic may actually help you achieve that goal. Social distancing will eliminate or reduce office/practice/hospital holiday gatherings. That means fewer opportunities to over-indulge. For the holiday celebrations that remain on the calendar, the Mayo Clinic suggests planning accordingly. First, don’t arrive hungry. Eat a healthy snack before holiday meals. Something protein-rich and satiating, such as Greek yogurt, might be a good option. Then, when you arrive for a holiday celebration or meal, eat until you feel 80% full. At this point, stop and take a breather. Wait 10-15 minutes, then decide if you’re still hungry. Next, stay hydrated. Water plays an important role in appetite suppression. The brain sometimes mistakes mild dehydration for hunger, according to Johns Hopkins University. Furthermore, drinking water before meals may help you eat less. A European Journal of Nutrition study showed that drinking about 2 cups of water before a meal reduced caloric intake.
Finally, ease off the alcohol. American alcohol consumption is already up during the COVID-19 pandemic. A JAMA Network Open Research Letter found that among 1,540 American adults, frequency of alcohol consumption increased by 14% over baseline. A buzz might take the edge off holiday stress, but prolonged alcohol consumption creates myriad health issues, including long-term stress. Like holiday eating, you have a better idea this year of when your opportunities to overindulge will be. Make a plan and stick to it. If you drink, make a mental drink limit and hold yourself to it. And think back to those late nights when you were younger. Drinking leads to poor choices, including dietary choices. Stay hydrated and put down a baseline of nutritious food if you plan on drinking.
Accept the Inevitable
There will be political fights, hurt feelings, and dry turkey. There will be unmet expectations, passive-aggressive in-laws, and crying children. There will be complex toys to assemble, last-minute gift-buying, and blown budgets. And guess what? All of that is fine. Life will go on. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Many of our most cherished traditions won’t happen this year. But that does little to diminish the underlying spirit of the holiday season. We must accept that this year won’t look like any other, and we must help each other through. That may mean getting some professional help. There is no shame in seeking support from a counselor.