Christmas and New Year are around the corner again. Some people love Christmas and feel excited and joyful, but others find it very stressful or lonely. So this year, the Christmas blog is going to focus on bringing the stress level down at Christmas!
What do we know about stress?
We have an automatic response to stress which is called the ‘fight–flight-freeze’ or stress response. It is there to protect us and goes way back in time. Thousands of years ago, when out hunting for food, humans might have come face to face with a dangerous animal. We saw the animal, our brain recognised the danger, and then a number of changes happened in the body to prepare to fight the animal, run back to the cave or freeze (‘play dead’).
This response also involves the release of a number of stress hormones, including adrenaline. This results in a faster heart rate, to pump blood to the muscles so that we can run or fight. Less blood goes to the brain, the skin, the fingers and toes, and the gut. This is why we may feel foggy, tingly or nauseated. Glucose moves into the bloodstream to provide energy, and we become more alert through the senses (hearing, sight, smell). The breathing rate can become quicker and shallow to get more oxygen around the body. We can feel light-headed as a result of this.
These changes in the body generally won’t harm, but they don’t feel good either. We can experience the symptoms and signs of the stress response when we face an acute stress, such as giving a public talk, or we can experience them chronically in response to all of life’s pressures, and especially around Christmas when we feel there are many demands on us!
Our ‘stress bucket’
Each day is filled with demands, from getting up in the morning, to doing things for family members, going to work and paying bills. And at Christmas we add in a whole another layer of demands, such as finishing work tasks, going to Christmas functions or organising presents or Christmas meals.
Let’s imagine that we all have a bucket inside of us! The bucket can hold a certain amount of stress, but each demand adds more to the bucket and it gradually fills up. If the bucket gets too full, we might find that when a final stressful event happens (even a very small thing), we can feel overwhelmed, and our stress level ‘spills over’ with feelings like irritability or frustration, or out-of- character behaviours. We might cry or become angry, for example, in response to something minor happening. This is a good indication that the stress level needs to be lowered.
We need to keep an eye on our stress bucket over Christmas and New Year, and try some of the strategies that follow to reduce our stress level. The opposite of feeling stressed is feeling relaxed, and so learning how to relax is vital.
Breathe to relax
When we feel calm we take about 12 breaths per minute (when anxious this might rise to 25). Here are a few examples of breathing techniques to try out:
- ‘Sit or stand up straight. Place the right hand on the upper chest and the left on your abdomen; take medium-sized breaths, focusing on breathing down into the belly. Feel the abdomen move in as you breathe out and out as you breathe in. Aim to breathe in for three counts and out for three counts — counting in, two, three and out, two, three — and this this will lead to about ten breaths a minute.’
- Some people use 4-7-8 breathing, which involves breathing in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds and breathing out for 8 seconds.
- If this is uncomfortable, try ‘box breathing’. ‘Imagine a square shape and follow each side in your mind. Up the left hand side as you breathe in slowly for four counts, across the top as you hold the breath for four counts, down the right hand side as you breathe out for four counts, then hold for four across the bottom and back to the start for four counts. Keep repeating these steps’.
Other ways to relax
Physical relaxation is another great relaxation strategy. Progressive muscle relaxation focuses on different muscle groups from head to toe, letting go of any tension in each area. Or we can use exercise to relax, especially walking, yoga or Tai Chi. Other formal relaxation techniques include imagining a pleasant and safe place, such as a garden or a beach. Various forms of meditation may be used.
Whichever relaxation strategies are used, aim to do them regularly. For example, even a few minutes of meditation each day can be helpful. 15 to 20 minutes is even better! By doing so the anxiety will lessen over time. Or you might prefer to tap into massage, music or being creative to relax. The important thing is to spend some time relaxing and reducing the stress level in our bucket!
These can be used to reduce stress symptoms, especially when they are overwhelming, and our nervous systems are in a state of ‘hyperarousal’ (very anxious and vigilant). For example, we can pay attention to what is around us, such as our feet on the floor and hands on our laps, and how they feel, letting our body be supported by the chair and noticing the feeling of gravity pushing down through our body.
The 5-4-3-2-1 exercise or ‘noticing 5 things’ can also help. This involves 5 things we can see, 4 things we can hear, 3 things we can feel (such as the seat we are sitting on), 2 things we can smell, 1 thing we can taste. If this is too much to remember, it can be simplified to 3 things ‘ can see, 2 things you can feel, and one thing you can hear!’
We have an automatic nervous system that controls much of our survival response. It has ‘Sympathetic’ and ‘Parasympathetic’ arms. The Sympathetic arm is responsible for our ‘fight-flight’ response when we feel threatened. The Parasympathetic arm has dorsal vagal nerves that trigger the ‘freeze’ response when we are in danger, and the ventral vagal nerves which help us feel safe and connected to others.
There are a series of activities to stimulate the ventral vagus nerve called ‘vagus hacks’. These produce a feeling of calm, and include breathing techniques, singing, humming, exercise and cold water (swimming, splashing on face). When we go out into nature and look into the distance (out to sea, or to distant hills) this calming response is also activated.
10 tips to relieve stress at Christmas
- Focus on a healthy lifestyle especially limiting alcohol and caffeine, getting some regular exercise, eating healthily and having enough sleep.
- Do some enjoyable activities, such as walking on the beach, reading or watching movies.
- Connect with others, whether in person or digitally. Or if we don’t have others to connect with, doing something enjoyable for ourselves, or consider volunteering on Christmas Day or connecting to others through the radio.
- Practice mindfulness regularly, and disconnecting at times from phones, tablets or laptops.
- Saying ‘no’ more often to limit demands on us, or ‘yes, but’ (“I can come, but only for an hour”).
- Work out the priorities for Christmas and New Year, and drop things that aren’t a priority. We might work on delegating tasks, for example, asking others to do some of the shopping or cleaning, or to bring specific dishes to share on Christmas Day.
- We may also need to lessen expectations of ourselves and be more compassionate towards ourselves – things don’t have to be perfect! It can help to keep things as simple as possible, for example, having a cold meal on Christmas Day or having a picnic.
- We tend to compare in life, so drop comparisons related to our celebrations or gifts to what others have.
- Tap into humour as having a good laugh can help relieve stress.
- And of course, keep breathing!
Above all, we need to remember what Christmas means to us, or doesn’t mean to us. And focus time and effort on what is important to us , whether that is family, friends, our pets, relaxing or getting out into nature.
I hope that the level in your stress bucket has come down, and that have an enjoyable and relaxed Christmas this year. Best wishes too for 2023!
Howell, C. (to be published in 2023). The Flourishing Woman A mental health and wellbeing guide, Exisle, NSW.