Editor’s Note: This is another segment in a series of articles from our friends at Ellis Family Chiropractic, designed to increase our readers awareness regarding health related issues.
BY – Dr. Valerie Ellis –
Stress during the holidays. Even for those who have the most holiday spirit, who seem to enjoy every aspect of the holidays, have stress. It seems to come at you in all forms and sometimes it sneaks up on you when you least expect it-that one person you really should buy a gift for, or that one added holiday activity that you forgot you promised one of your children you would do with them.
Stress comes in three forms: Chemical, Mental and Physical. Chemical stress is anything we put into our body. This would be food, alcohol or drugs. Mental Stress would be anything emotional. Last, is Physical stress. This would be any physical activity that would strain our muscles, organs and bones. So let us look at each one specifically for the holidays and then let us go through a few simple things we can do to calm each one.
During the holidays we stretch all three forms of stress to the hilt! Is it any wonder that cold and flu season is at its highest from the months of December through February? Yes, viruses have a stronger hold during the dry/cold weather but look at what we are doing to our bodies leading up to these months!
In the case of Chemical stress, we are eating tons of sugar from Halloween through New Years in the form of cookies, cake, candy and alcoholic drinks. Most people are also eating things more rich in calories and fat than they normally would. Many will use the excuse, “It’s the Holidays!” or “I’ll get back to eating healthy after New Year’s”. By putting high amounts of sugar into our systems in such quantities over these few months we are bombarding our bodies and depressing our immune system. Our cells are not getting nutrients they need and this can lead to body breakdown.
Physical stress I think is not one many people think about as an issue-until you spend weekend after weekend making all those holiday cookies and treats. How does your back and shoulders feel after baking and cleaning up all those bowls and pans? Wrapping gifts also can be a strain on the body, especially if you are doing it sitting on the floor bending over for an hour or more. Even shopping for gifts can be exhausting and wear on you. Or how about lifting that 22-pound turkey out of the oven? Let’s face it, during the holidays we are doing more physical feats all at once that are not typical of our everyday life and at some point something will give-or let go. And living here in the North East adds another component to all of this-snow. Driving in it, shoveling it and walking in it. Most people do not realize this, but just walking in the snow and ice can cause stress on your body because you change your gait and sometimes have to catch yourself from slipping. So physical stress is a huge issue during the holidays causing muscle and ligament strain that in turn causes us to ache and injure ourselves.
Then there is Mental Stress. Mental stress can be a huge issue that in turn affects many areas of our body. It causes increased cortisol levels which puts both our muscles at risk of injury and it also decreases our immunity. I think we can all find some that we encounter during the holidays. Financial issues, having to be around people we do not want to be around, missing someone that we would like to be around, having to do so many things, having tons of events to be at, worried about putting on weight, health issues, worried you bought the wrong gift, worried you might forget something, not enough sleep……the list can certainly go on depending on what causes you stress.
So how can we ease some of these stresses?
Chemical stresses I think are probably one of the most difficult. Especially if you have a couple of grandmas, moms and several aunts who make some of the best cookies and pies. We all want to enjoy the grand meals and yummy treats of the holidays. You really need to be conscious of what you are doing even as we start in October. For Halloween, do not buy the candy two weeks ahead of time and then snack on it. After a week or so, get rid of it. Don’t keep the candy around until Thanksgiving. As you head into Thanksgiving and the other holidays, in between each holiday or holiday event try to keep to more healthy choices. This way you are giving your body what is needed as far as nutrients.
When going to visit family during the holidays or when going to a holiday party maybe have a healthy snack before you go. This will keep you from eating so much at the gathering (where there may not be as many healthy choices) and again give you a healthy food for your body. If there are desserts and drinks, certainly enjoy some, but not 10. You can have a nice holiday dessert and/or have a drink or two but don’t overdo it. This is where the extra sugar comes from that will wear on your body and drop your immunity. If there is a place you know you will be going and you are really looking forward to the food there or a family member’s dessert that just makes the holiday better for you, then save yourself for that one and do not eat a ton of others before going.
I also suggest taking a good supplement, especially during this time of the year. I could do an entire lecture/article on this topic but I am going to keep this simple for this article’s purpose. Most of us do not get enough vitamins and minerals from the food we eat. Even for those who eat fairly healthy are most likely missing key amounts of nutrients. And fortified food is typically processed food which is horrible health wise. So that is why I bring this up as something important. There are all different qualities of vitamins and I have my preferences. I have researched many different companies and I have taken many courses in nutrition. I want to make this easy for anyone reading this so I think the best option is to go to your local health food store and ask them about their vitamins that that they carry. I’m a big fan of our local health food store and I know you can find quality vitamins and minerals there. In my family we all (kids included) take supplements every day to stay healthy. My general health suggestions are a multivitamin and mineral, a probiotic, and fish oils. Usually, you can ask at your local health food store and they can be very helpful in pointing you in the right direction of what can work for you.
Last, is water. Hydration is key. Any time I talk about anything to be healthy, I’m going to mention water. It washes out toxins (all those lovely alcoholic drinks), it helps with chemical stress and viruses, it hydrates our muscles which helps prevent injury. You should be drinking half your body weight in ounces if you want the optimal hydration.
Physical stress comes in the form of all the things you are doing that you do not normally do on top of all of the things you regularly do in everyday life. If you want to keep your body physically working properly the best thing you can do is keep it moving and exercise. I know, the first thing I hear with this is, “What? When will I do that? I thought we were trying to decrease my stress levels, not add more!”. Yes, I am. Exercise is incredibly helpful to decrease cortisol levels, increase endorphins and increase your circulation and your immunity. It will also keep your muscles working properly so that you are less likely to injure yourself doing other tasks. Now, I’m not saying you should go and get into an ultimate fitness plan or run a marathon. In fact, I’m not really a fan of throwing yourself into a fat burning, massive muscle building plan during the holidays (we can talk about that for after the holidays). I’m not looking to stress you out more. Exercise is a very important part of being healthy but let’s not go crazy because exercise can also be a physical stress on our bodies. You need to break down muscle tissue to get it to repair and build stronger-this could cause injury and immune decline in someone who does not regularly exercise. So there is a fine line with this especially since you are probably doing so much in the way of holiday activities already. If you are someone who already works out and you are fairly good at nutrition and hydration and you want to do some sort of workout challenge to keep yourself in the groove of that during the holidays, then go for it, but watch your exhaustion levels and try to keep yourself at a moderate level of intensity. If you are not, then look towards a walking program 3-4 days a week for about 30 minutes each day. You can walk on a treadmill or join a gym that has a track, you can walk at the mall (do it prior to your shopping-take 30 minutes and just walk), or get outside and get some fresh air when the weather permits. You can also do yoga. You can join a class or you can buy a DVD or stream yoga classes online and then you can stay at home. By doing either of these exercises or both you are moving your body, getting your blood moving, and relieving stress.
Some other tips I have for some of the physical aspects of the holidays are the following:
- When wrapping gifts, set yourself up so that you do not have to bend a lot and all of your tools (scissors, tape, etc.) are all at arms level. I like to use an ironing board. I can change the level of the ironing board to a height that fits me. I usually set it up in front of me with either my dining room table behind me or my bed behind me. This way I have a place to have gifts and wrapping paper. All I have to do is turn around to grab what I am going to wrap and then place it on the ironing board to wrap. If you are going to be standing for a while It is also good to have a small stool that you can place one of your feet on while you stand. You can alternate from one foot to the other, this will take strain off of your low back.
- If you are baking, stretching would be good prior to beginning. You use quite a few muscles lifting and rolling and there tends to be a lot of repetitive movements. So it is very good to take breaks, have a glass of water, and stretch in between.
- When going out shopping try to plan and break up trips out if you can. I know it can be great to get everything done in one day, but if you feel yourself becoming exhausted, it is best to stop and go back at it another day. Take a break in the middle of your shopping to sit down and have a water and maybe something to eat. Take a walk out to your car and drop off bags that you are carrying before buying more. All that weight that you are dragging from store to store can be a great strain on your body. Good shoes that are comfortable for walking are very important too. Besides just being on your feet for a long period of time, most all stores are built on cement floors-horrible for your knees and your back. So make sure your shoes have good support.
Mental health is certainly an issue during the holidays. My best advice here is you maybe you do not have to do it all—and that is ok. Learn to say no to things you really do not want to do or that are not important to you. Take just about 5 minutes and write down all the things during the holidays that you know you typically do and then circle the ones that are most important to you (whether they are something you really have to do such as, “I promised my son’s teacher I would help with the holiday party”, or things that are of value to you such as, “every year my mother and I make cookies together with my children and it is a wonderful family tradition”). Take a look at this list, if there are things that you didn’t circle as really important then possibly cross them off as things you do this year. Is there something on this list that you could get rid of that would make your life less stressful? Are there things on this list that you could possibly have other people do? Here are a few examples of things I have changed to remove stress for myself during the holidays. I stopped sending cards for the holidays. Now, I know this is not probably a popular one but I really hated doing it. It was stressful for me trying to get a picture done with my three kids-scheduling it became hard with all their activates and with my husband’s and my work schedule, I found it stressful getting all the envelopes done and put together. All I could think was, “these just get thrown out in a couple of weeks-all that work just for the garbage”. So I decided I would take that out of my things I do during the holidays. I don’t miss it nor do I feel guilty about it. I still send holiday text messages to those who I really want to send a little cheer to, I will send about a handful of cards to people in my life who I may not see during the holiday season who are important in my life and otherwise I see the majority of my friends and family and spend time with them. The other thing I did that has made my life a little easier is passing off some of the holiday activities to my older children. Of my three children I have 2 teenagers and a 7- year old. The older two have been put in charge of certain things like that little creature who moves to a new spot each night. I can’t say they are always happy to do this but they do get more creative than I would and they have more energy for it, so it is their holiday fun now and one less thing I have to worry about except to give them a little reminder. Not saying you have to change the same things, these are just some examples for you.
Getting enough sleep during the holidays is really important for your mental health. When you become fatigued you again are more likely to become sick and injure yourself. Really try hard to get to bed at a decent time so that you getting 6-9 hours of sleep. This is also an area where you can make a list of the things you need to do for the holidays. Take that list that we discussed above, now that you have the things circled that you are going to do, and then try and space them out over a certain amount of days so that you are not doing everything in one weekend and so you can take breaks from certain tasks. Its ok to walk away from something for a few hours or a day or so and then go back to it, whether it is putting up outdoor lights, decorating inside your house, wrapping gifts, shopping, or baking different treats. Break up what you are doing and get to bed at night.
I know a lot of people find holiday parties to be stressful. Sometimes it’s the people they have to be around, sometimes it’s the scheduling of it all. Again, do you have to be at all of them? You can decline some if it is wearing you out. You do not have to stay at them for hours. Go for a couple of hours if you really feel you need to be there and then leave. Remember that you do have control over what you do and where you go.
If you do have a lot of anxiety during the holiday time and you are feeling incredibly overwhelmed it may be a good idea to make an appointment with a counselor and talk through the things that are giving you issue. The counselor or therapist may have some good ways to help you specifically get through what causes you stress and make the season a happier one for you and your family.
The most important aspect of all of this is my hope that you enjoy this season with your family and friends and make memories that you can look back on and enjoy and not have the stress of the season take over instead. My ideas on this are not to stress you out more, so I’m not saying to do all of these things but maybe take a few of them and do them and overall for you to be more conscious of the things you are doing as you go through this season so that you can keep yourself in a healthier state.
Dr. Valerie Ellis is a Certified Pediatric and Pregnancy Chiropractor. “Dr. Val” and her Husband, Dr. Adam Ellis Ellis, Own and Operate Ellis Family Chiropractic, located at 155 Genesee Street in New Hartford. New patients are welcome and can call 315-732-3007 to schedule an appointment.