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November 3, 2023

8 Ways to Manage Holiday Stress and Stay Calm

Not feeling particularly cheery this time of year? Here are our top tips for managing the seemingly inevitable holiday season stress.

By: Matthew Kadey, MS, RD

Not feeling particularly cheery this time of year? Here are our top tips for managing the seemingly inevitable holiday season stress.

Welcome to the holiday season—that whirlwind of shopping, cooking, traveling, cleaning, attending holiday parties, and activities galore that begins soon after Halloween, builds to Thanksgiving and continues gaining momentum through the end of the year.

While this time of year is meant to bring feelings of love, cheer, and joy, it’s also the harbinger of holiday stress for many including even die-hard Christmas fans. More than just a few of us find the holiday season to be ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ stressful thanks to all of those social demands and seasonal expectations – “this Thanksgiving must be the best ever,” says so many of us. Oh, and the long hours of darkness don’t help. Often, we end up feeling so hot and bothered and the emotional toll can have a lasting effect.

So for the sake of your physical and psychological health, finding ways to better manage and reduce holiday stress is important. Here are some ways to ease through the season.

1. Take a Walk

During the holiday chaos, it’s easy to put exercise on the back burner. But even if you can’t make it to the gym or your yoga session, try at least to get out for a daily stroll or two. Walking gives your mind a cleaner path to thinking better, as well as time to get away from stressors. It puts a physical and mental distance between you and the stress-causing environment. And like other forms of exercise, leads to the release of the body's natural happy drugs — endorphins. Walking at a brisk pace that is enough to noticeably raise heart rate will have a more pronounced impact on endorphin release not to mention burn off more calories from any heavy holiday fare.

If possible, head into nature for your walk. A 2022 study by investigators in Germany found that a 60-minute walk in nature decreases activity in brain regions involved in stress processing. The investigators believe that even shorter walks in the forest could have a benefit on feelings of stress and mental health. This is a time to get out of your head: take a break from your internal worries and observe the environment around you - the trees, the birds, and the sky.

2. Scoop Some Adaptogens

Adaptogens, which have historically played a big role in traditional Chinese and ayurvedic medicine, are a class of plant-based food (mainly herbs, roots and functional mushrooms) that can help boost your resistance to and tolerance of daily stress—both physical and emotional manifestations of stress. When we face a particular stressor such as dealing with holiday traffic, long lines or playing host to a festive gathering, our bodies go through what’s known as general adaptation syndrome (GAS). GAS is a three-stage response: alarm, resistance and exhaustion. The role adaptogens play in this process is to help us stay in the resistance phase longer and hold off the dreaded exhaustion phase. Instead of crashing hard when faced with a particularly stressful situation, we can better attain a sense of zen and soldier on. A consistent intake of adaptogens is likely needed to have maximum benefit.

A simple way to work more adaptogens into your daily routine is to make use of Navitas Organics Superfood+ Adaptogen Blend which packs in a stress-busting combo of the adaptogens maca, reishi and ashwagandha. You can blend this powder into smoothies, stir it into oatmeal, mix it into salad dressings and even blend into holiday dips.

3. Embrace a ‘Less is More’ Mentality

All things in moderation, as the old saying goes. The problem with the holiday season is that we often want to experience too much of a good thing. And it can become overwhelming, which in turn leads to stress and anxiety if you try to fit in too many social gatherings, family get-togethers and gift exchanges. It’s important to be honest about what you can handle and take a pass on some commitments when it’s becoming too much. You don’t need to make commitments every night of the week when a few strategic, meaningful outings will fill your calendar enough. You are only one person, and you can only do so much.

Instead of squeezing in everything prioritize what is going to be most important to you. Before you get overwhelmed by too many activities, decide what traditions offer the most positive impact and eliminate superfluous activities. In other words, focus on quality, not quantity. Do so and you will come out the other side feeling more fulfilled than frazzled.

Also, be kind to yourself and accept imperfection. As we gear up for the holidays, we often set the bar impossibly high for ourselves and then feel upset when our celebratory occasions or batch of cookies don’t live up to expectations. It’s important to acknowledge that things may not go exactly as planned and don’t get too worked up when things go a bit sideways.  Imperfection is healthy and normal. So to stress less this holiday season, remove the pursuit of perfection and replace it with “my best effort.”

4. Eat for Your Gut

Turns out the state of your microbiome, the population of microorganisms that take up residence in your digestive tract, could play a role in how frazzled you feel. A recent investigation in the journal Molecular Psychiatry found that when people increased their intake of fermented foods their levels of perceived stress tended to decline. Fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, kimchi and sauerkraut contain beneficial microbes that once they populate your digestive tract can produce compounds that impact brain functioning. This is what is now called the ‘gut-brain axis’. So look for ways to sneak these bug-laced foods into your meals and snacks such as blending smoothies with kefir, add sauerkraut to sandwiches and making salad dressings with miso. The study also found that increasing the consumption of prebiotics, compounds that serve as a food source for the micro-critters in your gut, helped diminish stress levels. For the most part, you’ll find prebiotics in plant foods including whole grains, vegetables and fruits.

5. Set Aside Some 'Me-time'

Keep your sanity by scheduling some quiet time every day to do things you enjoy and will help keep you feeling calm. Read a book. Sit down for a few minutes with a meditation app. Draw a warm bath. Listen to your favorite music album. This will give you some breathing room between parties, travel schedules, work deadlines and shopping.

Another key to better managing holiday stress is to try as much as possible to stick to your normal routine. If a normal day starts with pouring yourself a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper, don’t skip it. If you typically exercise every day, keep exercising. Routines help you stay focused and sane, especially when you’re sharing a bathroom and kitchen with your in-laws.

6. Go Big on Cacao

The holiday season is the perfect time to embrace your inner Willy Wonka, and it’s good to know that using cacao more often might help you better manage holiday stress. How? Cacao is rich in magnesium, a mineral that plays a role in our stress response via its impact on neurotransmitter functioning (the body’s chemical messengers). So making sure to get enough in your diet could help make the holiday season seem like less of a mental strain. Unfortunately, dietary data shows that many people are not getting the necessary amount of magnesium in their diet.

You can go bigger on anti-stress magnesium by using Navitas Organics Cacao Powder in holiday baking and desserts, warm drinks, and smoothies. Navitas Organics Cacao Nibs are a great addition to oatmeal, yogurt, snack mixes and even salads for a little bittersweet crunch.

7. Get Enough Shut-eye

Anxiety affects at least 40 million people in the U.S. And one of the most powerful tools you have to reduce feelings of holiday-induced anxiety is to sleep well. Sleep loss triggers our body's stress response system, leading to an elevation in stress hormones including cortisol. So when you sleep poorly it can make certain holiday situations like political talk around the dinner table be more stressful to you than it should be. And when have heightened levels of stress this in turn can lead to sleep disturbances making it a vicious cycle. So, instead of staying up late for the third night in a row bingeing on holiday movies or socializing with friends and family, make it a point to prioritize your sleep and getting to bed at a reasonable hour. It’ll keep your stress and anxiety at bay and help your immune system run smoothly.

8. Go Easy on the Sweet Stuff

When it comes to the holidays, too much eggnog or too many of Mom’s famous cookies can be a recipe for excessive sugar intake. Yes, many of us use the holiday season as an excuse to spoil a sweet tooth rotten. But before you reach for another slice of cake you should know that eating high amounts of sugars added to foods can impact brain functioning in a way that drives up anxiety, mood and stress. Drastic swings in blood sugar levels may also impact our emotional state. The temptation to overindulge rich desserts can cause many people lasting stress that can linger long after the season is over.

You certainly need not push away a platter of chocolate chip cookies, but work to limit how much sugar you eat and feed your body more low-sugar whole nutritious food. This year, plan ahead by being aware of your indulgent food triggers and do what you can to have some healthy food at hand for each meal and snack, be aware of your intake, and practice mindful eating.

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