Stress Less during Stressful Times

Practical Tips for Getting Through the Holidays

Stress is a very private affair. It’s a reaction between you and you. What you think in your mind and feel in your heart manifests in your body. Uncle Johnny’s blunt outbursts at Christmas dinner can send you into an internal tailspin. The more he talks the more your blood boils. However, your sister finds Uncle Johnny’s indiscreet comments endearing.

Many years ago stress helped keep people alive. The same anatomical and physiological responses our ancestors needed to defend themselves occur when we say, “I’m stressed out,” a familiar idiom describing our lives being lived on overload, which affects our health, sexual function, reproduction, relationships, job performance, and sense of self. The effects have reached epidemic proportions in our lives, and stress-related diseases have become a medical specialty.

The holiday season is especially stressful. We have to juggle, work, shopping, wrapping, mailing, visiting, partying, cooking, baking, traveling, and family without dropping the ball. Often sleep, exercise, eating well, and relaxing fall by the wayside. But the holidays come every year. Now the pressure is on. What can we do?

What Stress Is and What It Does to Health and Well-Being

When you sense a threat your body responds by releasing a hormone called cortisol, which activates the fight-or-flight response. We feel the effects of cortisol in many body systems. Our heart rate and breathing increase, blood pressure rises, and muscles tighten. In small short doses, stress can help you perform under pressure. However, prolonged stress can compromise the immune system and lessen the body’s ability to protect against disease. It can also lengthen healing time and impair mental reasoning.

Knowledge is power. The good news is, once we know what will trigger our stress response we can control how we react to any given situation. Recognizing our unique stressors is the first step to calming down.

Stress occurs in modern society not because our lives are threatened but because we perceive that we can’t accommodate the demands of a situation given our perceived resources.

Mary Wingo, PhD, wrote “The Impact of the Human Stress Response” to educate the public about the causes and costs of preventable human stress. “One of the biggest determinates of how well we age is how effectively we can manage stress. Since the experience of stress is strongly related to the development of diabetes, mental illness, heart disease and auto-immune conditions, aggressively controlling stress is critical to successful aging.”

Are You Stressed?

Anything can cause stress. Overbooked schedules, unrealistic expectations, worry, and lack of flexibility in thinking are big button-pushers. Even a simple schedule change can send some into orbit. Physical signs you are stressed out include: back or neck aches, frequent colds or headaches, stomach aches, constant tiredness or fatigue, change in appetite, or heartburn. Stress affects more than just our body. Anxiety, worry, depression or mood swings, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, feeling overwhelmed, overreacting, increased number of minor accidents, weight gain or loss, increased alcohol consumption, and difficulty making decisions are all signs of stress.

Knowing your triggers can help you keep a balance during the holidays. When I used to drive to New York for the holidays I knew my family dynamics were a source of stress. I would spend the four hours in the car listening to relaxing CDs and visualizing how I wanted my trip to unfold. I practiced a lot of self-talk and created phrases that I could repeat in my head to calm myself down. Doing the prep work made my family time a lot happier.

I also find that around the holidays people drive more erratically, and that drives me crazy. I practice deep breathing in the car when I feel myself start to get hot under the collar. I also remind myself, “They are not intending to aggravate me. They are in a rush” – phrases that soothe me behind the wheel.

Techniques to Practice Daily

Practicing regular habits that relax you and make you calm and happy is the best way to handle anything the holidays throw your way.

  • If you don’t meditate, start now. Set a timer. Just 5-10 minutes most days of sitting quietly can lower blood pressure.
  • Exercise. It releases endorphins that make you happy.
  • Soak in a warm bath. It releases muscle tension and stimulates blood circulation.
  • Rest. Go to sleep or take a nap. It will reset your mood.
  • Get a massage.  
  • Give yourself a scalp massage or foot massage before bed. It helps you to sleep.
  • Stay away from junk food. It can make you feel depressed. Foods to help lessen stress include salmon, almonds, and blueberries.
  • Cut down on screen time.
  • Get organized.
  • Prioritize. We’re not superpeople. According to Wingo, multitasking is bad for mental health. “Over time high levels of cortisol shut down functions of the frontal lobe, which could lead to further deficits in problem solving, emotional regulation and impulse control.”

How to Lessen Stress in the Moment

We all find ourselves in situations that cause our heart to race. If you can’t leave or hang up the phone (which would remedy the situation), what can you do?

  • Change your perspective. There’s always a different way to perceive the same thing.
  • Take a deep breath (or two or three). Most of the time we breathe shallowly into our chest. Pause and breathe slowly into the belly, then exhale slowly, reversing the process.
  • Take yourself to a happier place (in your head). Is your mother complaining about Aunt Susie? Think about a lovely time you’ve had at the beach or in the mountains – whatever it takes to remain calm and not get sucked into what is causing your stress.
  • Stop worrying or feeling guilty. I call them two useless emotions. Neither is going to change the situation.
  • Tense and relax your muscles. The practice will change your focus and calm you down.

Most of all, enjoy the holiday season. Focus on the good parts. Don’t let a grumpy sales clerk ruin your day. Build into your life long-term strategies for stress relief that allow you to minimize the impact of any situation that comes your way.

To learn more about Wingo’s book visit her website,

Pattie Cinelli is a holistic health and fitness trainer, lecturer, and yoga teacher who began writing her column in the Hill Rag more than 25 years ago. Email her with comments, questions, or column ideas at