It’s no secret these days that the holidays are rough for many of us. Even for those who are looking forward to time with family and friends, delicious feasts, and treasured traditions, the time and money spent on holiday festivities can put significant strain on these precious resources. For those struggling with loss, the holidays can highlight feelings of loneliness and isolation. Whether you’re anticipating the holidays with joy, dread, or a colorful mixture of the two, prioritizing self-care will help you through all the ups and downs the season brings.
“Mindfulness” has become a buzzword as numerous studies throughout recent years have shown the positive psychological effects of a mindfulness practice. While specific practices vary, mindfulness is essentially awareness of one’s own inner states. Taking time to notice your (sometimes subtle) physical conditions, mental states, emotional responses, and behavioral changes empowers you with important information that you can use to take control of your state of mind. Before you become overwhelmed, check in and notice signs of stress. Being aware that your stress level is rising before it becomes intolerable is essential to being able to manage it effectively.
For example, signs of stress can include
- Tight muscles
- Changes in appetite
- Sleep disturbances
- Shortness of breath
- Heightened anxiety or nervousness
- Feelings of hopelessness or being out of control
- Increased anger or irritability
- Trouble thinking clearly
- Pessimism and negativity
- Increased substance use
The sooner you can notice these types of changes in yourself, the better equipped you’ll be to manage your stress in healthy ways.
Exercise is a natural way to ease stress and depression and reduce anxiety. It’s been shown to improve mood and enhance concentration. Just ten minutes of vigorous exercise causes the brain to release dopamine and serotonin, the same hormones target by antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications. Exercising regularly helps the body to build up levels of these mood-regulating hormones, making you better able to weather life’s stresses. Even if you can’t fit in regular trips to the gym, regularly taking the time to get your heart rate up while doing something you enjoy—even if it’s just a brisk, 10-minute walk—will help improve your mood and energy level.
Schedules packed with shopping, event planning, cooking, and cleaning can mean less sleep. So can cocktail parties and agonizing over creating the perfect holiday for your family. Sleep, however, is fundamental to our physical, mental, and emotional health. Lack of sufficient sleep can make us irritable, unfocused, more vulnerable to illness, and can even add to the extra pounds that can come with holiday meals.
Set yourself up for a good night’s sleep by following good sleep hygiene practices:
- Avoid eating late at night. Aim to finish your last meal four hours before you go to bed.
- Reduce your exposure to blue light, which electronic screens emit in high quantities. Switch off screens at least two hours before bed.
- Caffeine can stay in your system for up to eight hours, so avoid it after early to mid-afternoon.
- Try to maintain a consistent sleep/wake schedule.
- Do something relaxing before bed. Meditation, bathing, reading, and listening to music are common healthy choices.
- Get regular exercise.
- Limit alcohol consumption.
Alcohol is a large part of how many of us celebrate the holidays, and it can have a large impact on our ability to handle holiday stress. While avoiding it entirely isn’t necessary for good health, taking a critical look at how you use alcohol can help you understand what kinds of changes in your alcohol use can help you feel better, both during the holidays and all year round.
Consider these facts about the effects of alcohol:
- Alcohol disrupts our circadian rhythms, making it harder for our biological clock to regulate itself.
- This disruption in circadian rhythms can contribute to depression.
- Alcohol consumption interferes with the natural production of melatonin, an important sleep-regulating hormone
- Alcohol consumption interferes with the natural cycles of REM and deep sleep, making sleep less restful and restorative.
- Consuming alcohol in the mid-afternoon to evening hours (happy hour) is thought to be least disruptive to sleep.
- Alcohol is often used to avoid emotions, causing delay in addressing important life issues. On the other hand, it can have the opposite effect of intensifying emotions, which can be dangerous when combined with alcohol impairment.
- Regular use of alcohol depletes serotonin, contributing to depression.
Keep these facts in mind when choosing whether, when, and how much to drink over the holidays.
Thinking about what you’re grateful for shifts the focus away from the negative in your life toward the positive. There will always be bad things to think about as well as good things. Our outlook depends largely on where we put our mental energy. This may seem obvious, but research shows that it’s not only a matter of perspective; gratitude actually affects our brain chemistry. Even if you don’t come up with an answer, pondering the question “What am I grateful for?” causes an increase in the brain’s production of dopamine and serotonin.
The team at Iowa Radiology wishes you a happy and restful holiday season. For regular updates on our latest health tips and information, subscribe to our blog!
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