By Sajan K. Rao, MD, FACC The Southwest Institute for Cardiovascular Fitness & Treatment –
The winter holidays are full of busy schedules, shopping, gatherings with loved ones and plenty of home-cooked food and drinks. But, if you are not mindful of your activities, the holiday season can quickly become a burden to your health.
For many people, the comfort and joy of the holidays can easily turn into stress and anxiety, especially with the extra spending, overindulging in alcohol and food, and demanding expectations.
It really is no surprise that this time of year is often filled with stress, and experts say that stress can be counterproductive and harmful to one’s health, even if it is just for a few weeks.
The triggers are the same every year: too much shopping and preparation to do, end-of-year job responsibilities, crowds and family gatherings are among them.
One reason why stress is so recurrent during the holidays is that people fall into the same patterns year after year, such as finding the perfect gift for everyone on their list.
People also tend to place very high expectations on themselves in terms of how big of a party to throw or how many family members to see.
A lot of holiday stress can also be brought on by depression, which can either be strictly seasonal or can be a year-long depression that the holidays can exacerbate because one is lonely or forced to endure unpleasant family gatherings.
With all of the added pressure the holidays bring, there is significant reason for everyone to be cautious about exposure to unhealthy seasonal risks, especially for those individuals with existing heart disease.
A 2004 study reported in the respected journal Circulation throws some light on the issue. Researchers examined records for 53 million deaths from natural causes over a 26 year period and found that deaths from heart disease peak during December and January, with cardiac mortality spiking around Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. They concluded that there was evidence of multiple factors, including delay in seeking treatment, leading to what one authority, in a comment on this research, labeled the “Merry Christmas Coronary” and the “Happy New Year Heart Attack.” *
Another example of suggestive research is a small but provocative case study reported in a recent issue of The Newsletter of the American Institute of Stress. The investigators found that purchasing six gifts in a store was associated with an anxiety-driven doubling in heart rate from a resting 69 to a shopping 138 beats per minute, compared to purchasing the same items at home on the Internet which was associated with a steady heart rate of 65 to 67 beats per minute.*
Studies such as these make it clear that the body can become “stressed out,” especially during the holidays. And when you ask yourself to endure too much stress there are documented unhealthy emotional, behavioral and physical consequences. The findings from these and many other medical studies strongly suggests that the dramatic behavior changes that characterize the holidays do in fact increase the morbidity and mortality rates this time of year.
It goes without saying that most of us, especially heart patients, experience increased stress and unhealthy emotions while overindulging in unhealthy behaviors during the holiday season. The important thing is how we mange our busy schedules and extra demands. The following tips can help you effectively minimize the amount of stress you endure this holiday season.
For Physical Health
- Keep doctor’s appointments. Because of time pressures over the holidays, many people reschedule medical appointments or delay seeking medical treatment even when symptomatic.
- Take medications as prescribed both at home and when traveling. Many individuals miss doses over the holidays.
- Limit alcohol consumption. Overindulgence can lead to a number of problems. In addition to the obvious behavioral consequences, a heart rhythm problem, sometimes called “Holiday Heart” can be triggered by drinking too much alcohol. And alcohol contains a lot of calories.
- Moderate food consumption. Adding pounds, developing heartburn, and unbalancing diets are all risks of immoderate eating.
- Maintain the usual exercise schedule. Exercise is a great stress management activity. Because of a perceived time-shortage over the holidays, shopping may unwisely be given priority over regular exercise. (Of course, for those not already exercising regularly, check with a physician first as beginning after the holidays may be a better fit.)
- Get sufficient sleep. Sleep deprivation is harmful at any time of the year.
For Psychological Health
- Take time to relax. If an individual has a regular relaxation technique such as meditation, continue to practice it. If not, practice a simple meditation technique by simply sitting or lying down, closing the eyes, and repeating a pleasant word or phrase over and over with each exhalation, for 10 to 20 minutes every day. And don’t overlook prayer, which has physiological as well as spiritual benefits.
- Stick to a budget to avoid increased anxiety over credit card debt and financial stressors.
- Ask for professional help if needed. Seasonal factors can contribute to biological depressions such as SAD and other psychological disorders exacerbating the usual stress.
- Let go of personal perfectionism. Finding the perfect gift or behaving perfectly is not essential to a happy holiday.
- Let go of relationship perfectionism. Accept the fact that relationships that were not perfect during the year, are not likely to improve under the pressures of Christmas.
- Have a hearty laugh. A good sense of humor is a wonderful stress management tool.
Remember that the holidays are truly a time of of joy. As simple as it may seem, really focusing on the true meaning of the holidays and sincerely bonding with friends and family, are likely to bring the greatest psychological and physical benefits, with reduced mortality and morbidity, along with pure blissfulness and true enjoyment.
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