For many, the holidays are filled with pleasures — relaxing, enjoying good food and reconnecting with loved ones. But sometimes the holiday spirit can be overshadowed by packed schedules, pressure to find “perfect” gifts, houseguests and travel.

Peg Baim, MS, NP, a nurse practitioner and clinical director of the Center for Training at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, explains why stress can affect us negatively during the holidays. She offers scientifically-backed tips to help ensure this is still the most wonderful time of the year.

How does stress affect people during the holidays?

For many, the holidays bring pressure to accomplish more and to meet social and family obligations. For others, it can be a reminder of lost loved ones or inability to be with those you love. These circumstances draw on our time and energy. The human body only has a certain amount of energy. When it is depleted, we feel fatigue, negative moods and have a lower tolerance for stressors.

Is that why so many of us feel tired during the holidays?

Yes. Being stressed is exhausting. And pressures of the holidays often lead to inadequate sleep.

Benson-Henry clinical staff members. From left to right: Peg Baim, MS, NP, Aggie Casey, MS, RN, and Leslee Kagan, MS, FNP.
Benson-Henry clinical staff members. From left to right: Peg Baim, MS, NP, Aggie Casey, MS, RN, and Leslee Kagan, MS, FNP.

Sleep is our ground zero for restoring resiliency. As our threshold for stress lessens, we become less able to delegate and prioritize – skills we need over the holidays. Most people need between seven and nine hours each night. Sleep does another wonderful thing in helping us to regulate appetite.

Does that mean that if we’re well-rested, we’re less likely to eat extra holiday desserts?

Exactly! When we are stressed and tired, our brains cannot regulate hunger and fullness signals and we crave quick energy and long-term storage energy, which means sweet and high-fat foods. The fact that these foods are so abundant during the holidays doesn’t help. So now we’re going from “joy and peace” to “guilt and frustration,” which can trigger more stress. Resolve to eat slowly and savor your food and you will be less likely to overindulge.

So stress affects the way your brain works?

Absolutely – the brain functions differently when under stress, tending towards negative emotions. Even pleasant experiences can come under the influence of these negative perceptions. Your ability to regulate your thoughts and emotions disappears, so it can be challenging to free yourself of this negativity.

What can we do?

There are so many ways we can reclaim the holidays.

Accept that you can’t do it all alone. Seek social support from loved ones. Let others help lighten the load. Remember, most of us want to feel needed and valued, so being asked to help feels good.

“Think of the events on your calendar and the tasks on your “to do” list and rank them in order of importance.” – Peg Baim, MS, NP

Accept that you can’t do it all. We need to do less  to conserve time and energy – it’s that simple. Think of the events on your calendar and the tasks on your “to do” list and rank them in order of importance. Prioritization means letting go of conformity. Don’t spend your precious time and energy on activities just because they’re expected. Do you really need to make three kinds of pies for an event? See if some gatherings can wait for the new year. Finally, who says all gifts have to arrive before a certain date?

A student learns how to meditate at the Benson-Henry Institute.
A student learns how to meditate at the Benson-Henry Institute.

Elicit the relaxation response. Certain behaviors, like meditation, elicit the relaxation response, a state of deep relaxation. Being in this state engages the part of the brain that helps with prioritization, clarity and awareness. This will not only help improve your ability to remove less meaningful tasks from your list, it will also help you feel good.

Practice self-care. This includes anything that help you slow down, like taking a bath, going for a walk with friends, reading with a cup of tea or listening to music.

Improve your sleep habits. The best thing you can do before bed is to get into a good mood. If you’re happy, you can’t be stressed. Meditation and other behaviors that make you feel more relaxed will ready your brain for deep sleep. Dim the lights down to 60 watts an hour before bed. If you’re watching TV or working at a computer, lower the brightness to 200 lux. If you awaken in the middle of the night, don’t start thinking. Instead, focus your attention on your breath until you fall back asleep.

Be active. Being sedentary interferes with one of the body’s best protectors from stress: exercise. When you regularly exert yourself moderately for even 20 minutes per day, your cells produce stress-fighting chemicals and even burn those calories you’ve taken in from holiday treats!

What advice do you have for people who want to start meditating?

I recommend two basic approaches for beginners:

1)      Breathe diaphragmatically. This is the body’s natural way of breathing – when you breathe in, your belly expands. By taking in these deep breaths, you will trigger the part of your nervous system that buffers stress. Try to breathe so that your belly moves more than your chest. Even just a few of these breaths will bring a sense of calm.

2)      Build a daily meditation practice. You can begin a practice with just two minutes per day, and slowly work up from there. In this state, your mood shifts toward the positive, your breathing becomes deep and you have a greater sense of yourself. Brain imaging studies have shown that even practicing 20 minutes per day led to substantial brain changes in just eight weeks.

“My patients are much calmer, happier and less vulnerable to stress.” – Peg Baim, MS, NP

To elicit the relaxation response, all you need are two mental attitudes. First, focus your mind on a pleasing word or phrase. Second, adopt a non-judgmental state of mind. As you breathe in, say to yourself, “I am filled with peace,” and as you breathe out say to yourself, “I am calm.” You may also wish to add a mental image of a loved one or a relaxing place. In just a few seconds of focusing, you’ll likely find your mind wandering or catch yourself thinking. This is normal, but as soon as you notice it, just return to your chosen focus. If you get distracted, don’t judge yourself. Judgment is stressful, so it’s not allowed!

What changes do you see in your patients after they’ve begun a relaxation practice?

My patients are much calmer, happier, and less vulnerable to stress. They’re able to balance work and life demands with more ease. These changes are often noticeable soon after beginning a daily practice.  There is a dose-response, so the more you do, the more you’re influenced by it.  Research has demonstrated that long-term meditators who elicit the relaxation response daily are less vulnerable to stress, are more positive and have better coping skills.

These holiday stress tips are brought to you by the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, an organization that researches stress physiology and its influences on the brain the body. Since 1988, the Institute has been helping patients cope with stress and its related disorders, conducting cutting-edge research, educating clinicians from around the world and working with students and educators to reduce stress in the classroom.