Six mind-body tips for less holiday stress
(CNN)- by Dana Santas: There’s no denying the joys of the holidays, but with all the shopping, parties and family visits, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by emotional and physical stressors. Trust me, I know the feeling! Thankfully, there are ways to keep the stress from getting the better of you. Below, I share six simple-yet-effective techniques I use regularly to restore my body and mind when the darker, shorter days and all the pressures of the season start to wear me down. Give them a try so you can enjoy more and stress less during this special time of year!
Roll out stress
I keep a small roller and vibrating Hypersphere massage ball handy on a living room shelf for daily use. Whenever I travel, I make space in my bag to take a roller or Hypersphere with me. You can get these types of self-massage tools online or at sporting goods stores and department stores.
Even that rolling pin you’ve been using to roll out all the cookie dough can work on tired legs. Just roll it over your legs with moderate pressure, concentrating on the areas that feel tightest.
With all of the gift-giving, most of us feel particularly charitable over the holidays. But even the best of us can lose touch with our compassionate nature when faced with an onslaught of long shopping lines, lack of available parking and rude relatives.
Thankfully, we can work to strengthen our ability to show compassion through meditation. And, even better, research shows positive stress-reducing benefits from practicing compassion meditation. In fact, a Stanford study found that it not only lowers our stress response, it lowers our own pain response, helping people with chronic pain find relief.
To practice a quick and easy compassion meditation, simply close your eyes and imagine someone you think could use some compassion. Focus on an image of them and slowly repeat these three phrases in your mind, directed toward them, three times: “I wish you peace. I wish you love. I wish you happiness.”
Drink more water
Considering that our bodies are mostly water, most of us are aware of the vital importance of hydration. But not everyone realizes that the health benefits of hydration actually extend to stress relief. Being even just a little dehydrated can increase our body’s levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, leading to feelings of anxiety, exhaustion and overall irritability.
Too often, when we’re busy with all the holiday festivities, we forget to drink as much water as we normally would.
To avoid getting dehydrated, keep a bottle of electrolyte-enriched water in your bag when you’re out. Electrolytes are minerals involved in virtually all aspects of our bodies function, from breaking down carbohydrates to conducting the electrical activity of the heart. We lose electrolytes when we’re dehydrated. You can find electrolyte-enriched bottled water at most grocery stores.
Bonus benefit: Drinking electrolyte-enriched water can help counter the dehydrating, taxing effects of alcohol on your system and even prevent hangovers. So if you’re planning to indulge in a few candy cane cocktails, make sure you’re replacing your electrolytes and staying hydrated.
Actively practice gratitude
During the holidays, take advantage of the opportunity to not only give to others but share a sincere “thank you” with loved ones for their gifts.
Research shows that expressing gratitude has many health and wellness benefits, including boosting energy and immune system, improving mood/feelings of positivity, fighting depression and strengthening relationships.
One study at the University of North Carolina found that couples who express gratitude on a day-to-day basis have stronger relationships and feel more satisfied with their lives.
For more than three years, my husband and I have shared a daily gratitude practice using a white board on the back of our bathroom door where, every night, we each write three things we were grateful about that day — often including references to one another in our lists. I can personally attest to the benefit to our relationship.
Generally, when we’re stressed, it takes us out of the present moment with concerns about the future or past, like “how will I afford all the gifts I need to buy?” or “I can’t believe I said the wrong thing to my friend at that party.” That’s why deep breathing is one of our best holiday stress-busting techniques.
Our breath is always happening in the present moment. By connecting with it, we can bring our minds back into the here and now. And it takes only 90 seconds of long, deep breaths to elicit a relaxation response from our parasympathetic nervous system, inhibiting stress hormone production, lowering our heart rate and decreasing our blood pressure.
To leverage your stress-busting super power, lengthen and deepen each breath, emphasizing your exhales like big sighs of relief. Once you’ve established a pattern of deep breathing you can maintain, close your eyes and focus all of your attention on the sensations of your breathing, counting five long, deep breaths backward from five to one. Then open your eyes, feeling calm and refreshed.
Check out more techniques for leveraging breathing as a stress-busting superpower here.
Exercise for stress relief
Our self-care routine is usually the first thing we give up in our schedules to accommodate all the parties, cooking, wrapping, etc. But by skipping the gym or the yoga studio, we’re making it more difficult for our bodies and minds to overcome all the added stresses of the holiday season.
The good news is that you can take a less-is-more approach and fit in just a few minutes of stress-relieving exercises at home that will make a big difference in helping you manage holiday pressures.
If yoga is your thing, take just two minutes to practice a restorative yoga pose by lying on the floor with your legs up on a pillow, on a chair or straight up the wall.
If you’d rather be more active in your stress relief, try blowing off some steam with high-intensity interval training Tabata drills. A Tabata drill consists of eight rounds of any exercise done for 20 seconds on and 10 seconds rest, a total of just four minutes. You can do jumping jacks, pushups, burpees, squats — whatever feels best for you.
Although research supports the stress-relieving efficacy of all the techniques I’ve shared, there’s still the matter of personal preference.
Maybe you can’t stand the feeling of foam rolling but love the way you feel after restorative yoga. Or maybe compassion meditation isn’t your thing, but keeping a gratitude journal works for you.
Determine the ways that help you relieve stress and be consistent in your proactive use of them. If you do that, you’ll have happier holidays as well as a healthier, happier life.
Editor’s note: Dana Santas is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and experienced registered yoga teacher known as the Mobility Maker. Author of the book “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief,” she’s the yoga coach for the Toronto Blue Jays, Philadelphia Phillies, Tampa Bay Rays, Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Lightning, Orlando Magic, Houston Texans and World Wrestling Entertainment.