Graham Beaton BHSc, ND
Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine

For many individuals, the holiday season can be a very stressful time. Cooking, entertaining, hosting guests, shopping, parties and other social events can all put additional stress on our already busy and stressful lives, making many people feel overwhelmed and unable to cope. The added stress during this time can affect the enjoyment of the holidays and can affect relationships with family and friends.

In general, there are two types of stress responses, (1) an acute stress response, which is experienced over a short period of time, and (2) a chronic stress response, where a person is stressed continually. The holidays can be a source of acute stress or can be a source of further stress for individuals who experience chronic stress. Both types of stress responses can impact health. Acute stress responses can manifest in headaches, muscle tightness or flare ups of certain health conditions, including inflammatory bowel diseases, eczema. Chronic stress may put people at higher risk of developing several health problems, including cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, depression, sleep disturbances.

Stress During the Holiday/Winter Season
Stress has a negative impact on immune function. This can be problematic at this time of year due to the prevalence of colds and flu. Those who are chronically stressed are more susceptible to catching upper respiratory tract infections. In addition to the increased risk of getting sick, those who are chronically stressed also tend to experience more severe symptoms and tend to be sick longer. Preventive measures such as vaccinations may also be affected by chronic stress, with stress reducing the ability of the immune system to make antibodies following a vaccination.

Both acute and chronic stress can also impact health behaviours. Those who are stressed tend to make poor dietary choices, turning to high sodium, high fat and sugary foods, which are all prevalent during the holidays. Stress also affects sleep quality, and those who are stressed are less likely to be physically active. Additionally, those who are stressed may turn to alcohol or drugs in order to cope with additional pressures. All of these negative health habits can further exacerbate stress and worsen overall health.

Tips for Dealing with Stress During the Holidays
1-Acknowledge that you are stressed and that you might continue to be stressed. Stress is a normal part of life, and while it is unpleasant, most stressors can be overcome.

2- Watch for symptoms of stress. Awareness that you are stressed is essential as it serves as an indicator that you need to stop and address the person or event that is causing the stress. Common symptoms of stress to watch for include: muscle tension, headaches, fatigue, upset stomach, feelings of restlessness or anxiety, lack of motivation or inability to focus, anger, irritability, feeling sad, or changes in behaviour such as reacting with angry outbursts, overeating, overspending, relying on drugs, alcohol or tobacco.

3- Set realistic expectations for specific situations. For instance, it is unrealistic to expect that the holidays will unfold in a specific and perfect way. Also, plan and stick to a budget that you can afford.

4- Take time for yourself and maintain healthy habits (e.g. getting a consistent amount of restful sleep, being physically active, eating nutritious meals). Keeping these activities in place will help you to have the energy, positive outlook and resilience to overcome challenges.

5- Set and maintain a schedule. By setting a schedule, you are more likely to be able to manage your tasks in a realistic time frame, and you will be able to ensure that you take time for yourself and for your healthy habits.

6- Talk to someone about how you are feeling. Talking about what you perceive as stressful situations or challenges with others often helps to reduce stress, and helps you to develop a plan to manage stressors.

During this holiday season, remember it is important to be aware that you might be stressed and put a plan in place for how you will deal with it. Be aware of how you are feeling, take time for yourself and make sure you are maintaining healthy habits. If you feel like stress is negatively affecting you and your health, or if you feel that you will have trouble coping over the holidays, remember to seek help and talk to someone about how you are feeling.

Happy Holidays.

Graham Beaton is the Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine practicing at Ottawa Collaborative Care Centres – 102 Lewis Street, in Ottawa Ontario. If you have questions about stress, how stress is affecting your health or about how Naturopathic Medicine can help you, please call Graham at 613-290-6115.