(MCT) GRAND FORKS, N.D. — As the holidays draw closer, your mind can start spinning with all of the items on your to-do list, and stress that results from trying to do it all — and doing it perfectly — can take a toll on your health.
While stress can be good — it motivates and spurs us to take action — it "can also be a bad thing if you have too much of it in your life," said Bethany Brandvold, medical fitness specialist with Altru Health System in Grand Forks, N.D.
Symptoms of stress are caused by the body's instinctive survival mechanism to protect it from predators and aggressors.
"In the last 100,000 years or so of human existence … survival depended on the ability to successfully flee or to successfully defend yourself," said Dr. James Whitehead, professor of kinesiology and public health education at the University of North Dakota.
In stressful situations, the body releases stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, "to prepare us to either fight like hell or flee like hell," he said. "The 'fight or flight' response that has evolved and that we've inherited from our predecessors" sets in motion physiological changes intended to preserve life.
Although life-threatening dangers are rare today, the body treats hassles — such as multiple demands and family problems — as threats and reacts the way our ancestors' bodies did eons ago.
In the past, most of the threats to survival were physical, he said. Today, "threats" are typically psychological and emotional stresses.
"The stress of the boss dumping a bunch of work on you or someone (making you angry) in a relationship has the same effect on our body as if a bear jumped out in front of you. … The body diverts blood from places like the gut system to the skeletal muscles," he said.
Skin may feel cooler because less blood is being pumped to the skin; instead it's sent to the muscles.
Perception is heightened to become more focused for visual cues, he said. "Pupils are dilated to spot telltale signs" in the environment.
This response produces stress symptoms that can affect your body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behavior, according to MayoClinic.com. Stress that's left unchecked can contribute to health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
"Physical activity helps dissipate that stress response," Whitehead said. "When you improve fitness through physical activity, you get less reactive to common stresses. It's called the 'stress inoculation effect of physical activity.' "
Sources of stress
Studies have found that during the holiday season, 40 percent of Americans report feeling financial stress, Brandvold said. "The stress of credit card bills will make you feel even more stressed come January."
Studies also found that 37 percent of Americans feel stressed by memories of loved ones who have died, and having too much to do causes stress for 34 percent of people, she said.
Those who are stressed out may make unhealthy food choices and abandon regular exercise, which has been shown to be among the best treatments for combating stress, she said.
"Researchers are also finding that stress is a major factor in many digestive problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome and 'sensitive stomach syndrome,'" she said.
Stress can lead to inadequate or poor quality sleep, she said. Without sufficient sleep, "we suffer in our performance at work and can experience many of the same (effects) as if we're highly stressed, like gaining weight."
Here are some tips that Brandvold suggests to better manage stress during the holidays:
—Plan ahead. "Get your Christmas letter together ahead of time," she advised. "When I was little, my mom got out the Christmas letter in February." Decide in advance who is going to host family gatherings and meals, write out the menu and make a list of everything you need to buy "so you won't have to run to the store at the last minute," she said. "Failure to prepare is preparing to fail."
—Host a potluck meal. Rather than taking on the whole dinner yourself, recruit others to share in food preparation. "People like to help out," she said. Ask them to bring a side dish or another item to lighten the burden.
—Learn to say "no." "Don't feel obligated to attend every single party you're invited to," Brandvold said. "It's your holiday season, too — you don't need to attend everything that you could. People will understand that you can't participate in every event. Save your time and energy for the ones you enjoy most. Make sure you enjoy the season the way you want to."
—Stick to a budget. "Plan how much you'll spend on gifts, food and other expenses, and follow that budget, no matter how much you're tempted to go beyond," she said. "It's really hard, I know, but it's doable." If your child asks for something beyond the limit, you can explain, "That's a pretty big-ticket item. I'll give you this much toward (the cost), but it's your job duty to save up the rest."
—Create a barter system. Trading "services" with someone else can lighten your load. "My sister wraps 80 percent of the gifts I give," said Brandvold, who in exchange does Christmas baking for her sister. "Or ask a friend who has great handwriting to write your cards in exchange for some baking. It cuts stress and time constraints."
—Keep up with or start healthy habits. To eat healthier during the holidays, "keep temptations away from home and the workplace," she said. "Save indulgences for special parties and on the holiday itself." To eat healthier, she suggests replacing full-fat milk with low-fat or 1 percent milk and reducing the amount of butter in foods like mashed potatoes. "Use fresh herbs and spices" to season foods, she said. "Cinnamon soothes digestion, increases metabolism and is good for regulating blood sugar."
Keep up your exercise program during the holidays, Brandvold said. Studies show that exercise has many great effects on the body, such as helping to reduce stress and fatigue, elevating mood and improving sleep.
"Exercise helps you remain calm and clear-minded in everything you do," she said.
Allow yourself "some room" during the holidays, she said. "If you can't (exercise) for an hour, do less.
"Even 10 minutes out of your day will help. Go for a walk, ride a bike. You'll feel better than if you let it go to the wayside and (then) feel you have to start over on Jan. 1."
The holidays should not be viewed as "another commitment," Brandvold said. "They are to be enjoyed."
Long-term activation of the body's natural stress-response system and constant production of stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) can increase your risk of numerous health problems, such as:
Source: Mayo Clinic
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