Meadville Tribune

December 17, 2013

De-stress your holiday — or just skip it

By Nina Bell
Special to the Tribune

— Does this sound like you: Go shopping, visit the family, go shopping again, bake holiday cookies, shop some more, decorate the house, shop again, visit in-laws, pick up stocking stuffers, prepare holiday feast, shop for Secret Santa gift for work, mail Christmas cards, wrap presents, head to church services ... and the list goes on and on.

Talk about being stressed out, not to mention maxing out your credit cards on gifts most people don’t need or even want (maybe)! There’s no doubt about it, this time of year can be stressful. And, as I get older, it seems to get worse every year.

I think John Grisham had it right when he wrote the book, “Skipping Christmas,” in 2001. Most of you might be more familiar with the 2004 movie based off of the Grisham story, “Christmas with the Kranks,” but the premise is the same: No shopping, no baking, no holiday parties ... no Christmas. It really points to a “no stress” holiday. That was the point. Did you get it? I sure did.

When I read the book in 2002, I posed the idea to my husband to “skip” Christmas that year so we weren’t pulled in so many directions on Christmas day: visiting multiple families, exchanging gifts, cooking a feast and then cleaning mounds of dishes afterward, decorating to the hilt. Although we weren’t as elaborate in our Christmas skip day as Grisham’s characters, The Kranks, who planned a peaceful Caribbean cruise in place of Christmas, my husband and I took off for the ski slopes and enjoyed each other’s company from dawn to dusk. No stress. Seriously, we didn’t overeat, didn’t over buy, and we didn’t feel pulled in all directions.

With a successful first Christmas skip day under our belt, we realized that the world didn’t end because we skipped out on a stress-filled day. Of course, we still celebrated some of the traditional holiday stuff and visited family between Christmas and New Year’s Day ... but at our leisure over several days. The best part of it all was that our health didn’t suffer: We had a stress-free holiday!

Your health is a vital part of being able to enjoy the holiday season –– regardless if you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or just New Year’s Eve/Day. Staying stress-free can not only reduce health hazards such as heart problems, high blood pressure, and headaches, it can actually benefit your overall health. In fact, a study published in the journal Health Psychology discovered something even beyond actual stress and poor health. Researchers found that high amounts of stress coupled with the perception that stress will impact health were associated with poor health and mental health outcomes. In addition, they concluded that “individuals who perceived that stress affects their health and reported a large amount of stress had an increased risk of premature death.”

Is this really a death-laden holiday? It doesn’t have to be.

While some people simply don’t feel they can “skip” the holiday, health and psychology professionals do offer several tips to help you reduce your stress (which will improve your overall holiday enjoyment):

1. Practice being calm and quiet. Taking several deep breaths or practicing meditation will help you relax, especially if you do this before you start your day.

2. Stay positive. People can be harsh and terse during the holidays, especially at the mall. Do not let their bad mood affect you. Smile or say a kind word instead. You do not know their specific situation, so don’t react negatively.

3. Get moving. Exercising regularly is probably one of the best ways to overcome stress. Getting your blood flowing reduces tension and fatigue and improves your ability to think clearly. While you may want to, don’t skip your workout. It’s critical for your health.

4. Limit the holiday “comfort” foods. Besides cakes, cookies and candies, this also includes alcoholic beverages. When offered such treats, be kind and take polite bites or sips, but avoid over-indulgence. Sugar, alcohol and caffeine can increase stress.

5. Be generous. This doesn’t mean cleaning out your retirement account for the holidays. What it does mean is to give compliments and heart-felt sentiments. Giving makes you feel good about yourself, regardless of the gift itself.

6. Make a concrete Christmas shopping list. This will allow you to stay within budget and not overspend on whim or inspirational purchases.

7. Sleep well. Holiday parties that last into the wee hours of the morning rob you of much needed sleep. Make sure you keep as normal a sleep schedule as possible, limiting those late night rendezvous.

Be well and have a wonderful holiday season!

Nina Bell, Ph.D., MPH, is a public health professor with Ashford University and works in health promotions for the Meadville Family YMCA. She is a co-author of the book “Community and Public Health,” published by Bridgepoint Education Inc. You can email her at nina@w2w4life.com.