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Don't Let the Holidays Stress You Out
As much joy as the holidays bring - stress often comes along for the ride. Just like routine sources of stress, like arguments with boyfriends, spouses or kids, deadlines at work, traffic jams, or long lines at the supermarket - our body's nervous system can react with:
Stress can be acute, such as when you get worried or upset over one event that soon passes - rushing to get to an important meeting on time, for example. Or it can be chronic, such as when taking care of an ailing parent, feeling trapped in an unpleasant relationship or being deeply in debt.
Sometimes even good events can be stressful, like the hustle and bustle of the holidays, getting married or going on vacation. Stressful events don't have to be major, either. An important factor in how they affect you is how you perceive them. Some people stay calm even during big problems, while others get worked up over every little issue.
Frequent stress, whether it's acute bouts or a chronic grind, can cause a variety of health problems, from minor to serious. A condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - in which you go through a scary situation and then relive it in your mind over and over again - can also cause lasting and harmful health effects.
Making some changes to your diet can help protect you from the ill effects of stress, and shifting the way you deal with your surroundings can also turn down your stress level - key steps to protecting your body from the harmful and cumulative effects of stress. Stress can be a major con¬tributor to many major diseases that have a pro-aging effect on the body, so a key anti-aging strategy is to manage it effectively. Before we get to specific tips, though, let's take a quick look at what occurs in your body during stress.
When you're confronted with a stressful situation, the pituitary gland in your brain - called the master gland because it can affect so many hormonal processes - produces a hormone called ACTH. This hormone prompts the adrenal glands atop your kidneys to produce other hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare you for fighting or fleeing.
Inflammation can be a good process when it's directed at the right target in controlled doses, but when it rages out of control, it harms your body. Stress hormones work the same way. When you really need them to outpace a mean dog while you're bicycling, stress hormones are great. But when they keep flooding your system over and over again, they can cause illness. Adrenaline con¬tributes to elevated cholesterol, increased blood clotting and atheroscle¬rosis. These factors help create clogged arteries and heart attacks.
Elevated cortisol contributes to all kinds of health-harming issues. It causes fat to accumulate around your midsection - a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes. It increases insulin resistance and keeps your cells from taking in glucose. And it impairs your immune system, making you more likely to get sick.
These are big health problems that can keep you from enjoying a long, healthy life. But stress also contributes to problems that are less serious but can rob you of your quality of life, such as:
All these potential consequences of stress add up to some powerful influences on how healthy you'll remain as you age. But they're not the only ways that stress can affect health.
A common reaction to stress is to eat. And the foods we reach for when we're wound up aren't typically turkey sandwiches and low-fat yogurt. We grab chocolate bars and bags of chips from the vending machine; we drink sodas; and we dig our spoons into pints of gourmet ice cream. These "comfort foods" that we unconsciously feed ourselves are too often foods that have little place in The Biggest Loser eating plan. So part of the plan for handling stress is to learn to reach for healthier choices when pressure builds.
Some of us react to stress by not eating at all, which only makes us feel worse. It's important to try to re-establish regular meal patterns with healthy choices even when we're not up to it. Eating snacks or small por¬tions of the regular Biggest Loser eating fare is better than nothing at all.
The Biggest Loser eating plan is an anti-stress diet. It gives you B vita¬mins, antioxidants including vitamin C, and all the other nutrients you need to fortify your immune system when stress beats it down. It also pro¬tects your other organs from the threats that stress poses.
If you're chronically under stress, the processes going on in your body are tilting you toward not only a dampened immune system, but diabetes, heart disease and other problems, too. It's especially crucial that you make a priority of getting good fats and lots of fruits and vegetables in your diet and eating small meals throughout the day. In addition, these steps will help.
Studies have shown that eating breakfast can lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Though food may be the last thing on your mind when you're feeling topsy-turvy, it's the first step to starting your day on a positive note.
Often we reach for sodas or coffee when we're feeling the pinch. But caffeine's a stimulant, and when it wears off, you can be left foggy-headed, tired and less able to deal with stressful situations. If you need a flavorful pick-me-up, try a cup of herbal or decaffeinated green tea.
Hydration brings oxygen and nutrients to tissues, includ¬ing the brain. This can help us think more clearly, too.
Skip the alcohol
Drinking in response to stress is not a healthy way of coping with pressure - and becoming dependent on alcohol just adds more problems to your life. It may help you feel better temporarily, but alcohol is a depressant and may make you feel even lower. Stress is one of the worst reasons to pour yourself a drink.
Keep wholesome snacks on hand
You probably know what types of situations cause you to feel the pressure of stress: challenges at work, traf¬fic jams on your commute and paying bills at home. These are the times when you may long for candy, chips, mashed potatoes with butter, fried chicken and other comfort foods from days past. Keep plenty of healthy foods handy so that you can reach for them instead. Bring a bag of trail mix, dried berries or healthy cereal to munch on during rush hour. Keep low-fat yogurt in your workplace refrigerator.
Tea bags are portable and offer a variety of flavors to suit your mood. Keep them everywhere - your purse, desk and car, plus a big supply at home.
Exercise is a great stress reliever. It can serve as a form of meditation; and it helps you sleep better, so you're more refreshed and ready to face the next day. Some forms of exercise are particularly good at reducing stress; namely, yoga and tai chi, especially in a communal setting so you can interact with other people. Look for classes in your area at gyms, the YMCA or community centers.
For those times when you just can't leave the house, buy a yoga or Pilates video and follow along. Even if you don't go for these relaxing activ¬ities, make sure to devote half an hour to your favorite exercise on most days. The best part about exercising to relieve stress is that it elicits a need to drink water and a desire to eat healthier foods. A great workout or brisk walk rarely leaves you craving junk food or thirsty for a cocktail.
If you have a tendency to "go to the dark side," keep a stress rubber band loosely on your wrist. When you have a negative thought, snap the rubber band. That's a reminder to think positively.
Practice stress relief
Regular prayer, meditation, guided visualiza¬tion (which is like organized daydreaming) and deep breathing have pow¬erful relaxation qualities. Making time to do one of those can help lower your stress levels in general and, when you're caught up in a stressful situ¬ation, allows you to quickly regain a sense of control. Check your local bookstore or library for books on these stress-relieving activities.
Explore your reactions
Remember, stress isn't just a matter of out¬side events that happen to you - it also comes from how you react to these events. Consider keeping a "stress journal," in which you take a few min¬utes each day to write down unpleasant events, how they made you feel, how you reacted to them and how you could react differently next time.
Sometimes taking half a day or even a couple of hours to get affairs in order can greatly alleviate feelings of being overwhelmed. Organize your finances, file away paperwork or update your calendar and appointments. Make a schedule to do this regularly so you'll always feel on top of it, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the weight of it on top of you.
Go see a comedy show, rent a film or call a funny friend. Laughter should be a part of every day. It releases tension and minimizes stress.
Walk your dog
If you don't have a pet, consider getting one. The therapeutic benefits of pets have gained recognition in recent years. Pets provide a consistent source of comfort and love. They accept us uncondi¬tionally and elicit a nurturing response. Research has shown that pet ownership can reduce stress-induced symptoms, including high blood pressure. A study conducted at UCLA found that dog owners required much less medical care for stress-induced aches and pains than non-dog owners.
Stay in touch
Feeling stressed and/or depressed often makes us want to isolate ourselves. This is especially dangerous when you live alone. Pick up the phone and call a friend or relative. Make plans for a movie or a walk. Stay connected to the people who love and support you.