Getting into the “holiday spirit” might be easier said than done. More than 20 percent of Americans report “high levels of stress” during the holiday season—and that type of chronic tension isn’t good for your body or your mind.
We’re all built to experience some stress—experts even call the stress hormone the “fight or flight” reflex. In a time of crisis, stress hormones will keep your system on red alert until the threat is gone.
“The body is set up to have short bursts, get out of harm’s way, and get back to normal,” says Mindy Greenstein, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and blogger for Psychology Today. “In the case of prolonged stress, you don’t get that respite, and the body continues churning out cortisol,” or the so-called “stress hormone.”
Yes, the holidays are supposed to be a time to enjoy loved ones, but if you need to hit the crowded mall and cook a five-course meal, and you’ve given up your bedroom to the in-laws, it’s easy to see why you might be grinding your teeth. Not to mention that we’re likely sleeping less, exercising less, and eating unhealthier, calorie-dense foods, explains Amit Sood, M.D., professor of medicine and author of The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress Free Living.
It would be nice to ease your stress with an hour-long massage, but who has the time? Instead, try these stress-busting exercises that are sure to calm you down in just minutes.
Brew a cup of tea.
A few sips of a calming blend could be key to unwinding in the midst of craziness. University of London researchers found that study participants who drank tea were able to de-stress more quickly than those who drank a tea substitute, and those who specifically drank black tea had lower levels of cortisol after participating in “stressful” events. If black tea isn’t your favorite, go for green—one small study found a link between a compound in green tea and a reduction in heart rate and overall stress when exposed to stressful situations.
Lauren Miller, author of 5 Minutes to Stress Relief, says the purpose of any stress-relieving task is that it “distracts us from the brain muck, and gives us a brain break.” Even if your tea choice isn’t scientifically backed, the act of brewing and sipping can be enough to take your mind away from family tension.
Laugh about it.
The experts all agree: Finding a way to laugh is one of the easiest ways to sidestep holiday stress. But you can’t just chuckle to yourself—it has to be real, mirthful laughter. In one study, Midwestern patients who underwent “laughter therapy” had lower levels of self-reported stress.
How does it work? According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter activates and relieves your stress response, releases endorphins, and soothes tension. Keep a playlist of YouTube videos that never fail to crack you up, and turn to them in those moments when you’re ready to pull out your hair.
Hug it out.
One UNC study showed that hugging and “warm contact” led to lower blood pressure and heart rate compared to adults who were part of a “no contact” control group. The benefits are likely due to oxytocin, the “bonding hormone,” which has also been linked to lower blood pressure and cortisol levels.
“Two of our basic needs as humans are to feel safe and connected,” Miller says. “When we feel safe and connected, our entire perception of the world shifts.”
Count your breaths.
Breathing is one of the body’s most effective stress relievers—but not just any breathing. We’re talking cleansing breaths.
Greenstein has a trick to ensure you’re taking deep, full breaths. Put one hand on your chest, and one on your abdomen, and take a breath. If the hand over your chest begins to rise, you’re taking shallow breaths. Practice until you’re pushing the hand over your abdomen—then begin taking slow, deliberate breaths. “If you feel like a bad moment is coming on, you know that it’s time for your cleansing breaths,” says Greenstein.
Find your center.
Take your deep breathing one step further with a little zen time. Called “mindful meditation,” just a few brief minutes might reduce cortisol levels, and help you find new perspective on stressful situations.
Even if meditation isn’t your thing, a few minutes of mindfulness can be a serious stress reliever. Need a quiet space? Sneak into your bedroom or bathroom and close the door to drown out noise and have some alone time. If you’re not sure how to begin, try our simple five-minute routine. If you still need a little help, Greenstein recommends guided meditation apps—she loves Headspace—to help you focus.
Read your favorite book.
Taking a few minutes to skim the pages of a good book is both a tactic for relieving stress in the moment, and preventing it before it starts.
“If you’re going to face stressful people, read something that inspires you,” Sood says. Take time before everyone is awake to curl up with a good book, or save a stack of your favorite magazines to page through in the middle of a crazy day—it will relax your mind and body.
Getting outside is an important stress reliever—in fact, a 2011 study at the University of Edinburgh found lower cortisol levels in adults who lived in areas with more green space. Take advantage of your favorite winter scent—short walks in a pine-filled forest reduced anxiety and stress in one study.
“Shorter days means less sunlight,” Sood says. “This might bring people more stress.” As it gets darker, our bodies produce more melatonin—the sleep hormone—leading us to feel sluggish and tired, but when we have a full plate and a full house, that exhaustion can easily translate to a sense of being overwhelmed. Get outside when you can, and soak up the sun, even on chilly days.
Take a snack break.
Science has identified a few snacks that might help reduce stress—dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, or maybe even chewing gum to name a few. But, as with any science-backed stress buster, you know your body better than anyone else, and you intuitively understand what has the potential to make you feel better.
“Just because science says something ‘on average’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be true for you,” Greenstein says. “Gravitate towards the things that feel like they might help.”
Most importantly, avoid striving for perfection, and learn to accept inevitable bumps in the road. “You have to develop this attitude over a period of time, weeks or months,” Sood says. You won’t become zen overnight, and the first time to attempt a stress-free lifestyle is not Thanksgiving morning.
Start today—and by the time your doorbell rings, you might just be ready to take on the entire family.
Plus: Even more ways to reduce holiday stress.