Despite being surrounded by festive decorations, holiday songs, and the general cheeriness that comes with the holidays, the reality is that the season can induce stress for many of us—especially this year. While hassles related to travel might be lower due to more of us staying put, new stresses have arisen that many of us weren’t expecting. We’re unable to visit loved ones, living our lives online, and coping with job loss. And expectations around what the holidays should look like only compound these feelings. To help you cope with holiday stress, we’ve dug into the research to learn some of the best ways you can stay calm and connected this year.
Holiday Stress: How It Affects Your Brain
We all know what stress feels like. And how it can make us forgetful and disorganized, and feel flustered and frustrated. A quick look at neuroscience can help us understand why. Though your brain is one single organ, it has many different parts that all have different jobs. Researchers believe that when one part of your brain is engaged, the other parts have less energy available to do their jobs.
For example, if you feel stressed about paying next week’s bills on time, the survival part of your brain (amygdala) will kick into gear, resulting in other parts of your brain (like problem-solving and memory) taking a back seat. Dr. Kerry Ressler, professor at Harvard Medical School, says “the basic idea is that the brain is shunting its resources because it’s in survival mode, not memory mode.” And this can help explain why you might be more forgetful when you’re stressed out or experience lapses in memory after a traumatic event (5).
Evidence suggests that chronic stress may actually rewire your brain. From studying animals, scientists have learned that those that experience prolonged stress showed more activity in the primitive survival parts of their brain than in the parts associated with higher-up tasks (8). It’s like what would happen if you started exercising just one part of your body and not the others. The muscles you use would become stronger and the neglected ones would become weaker. And not only does stress affect how your brain functions, but it also incites inflammation in your body, which is believed to be the root of many serious health issues, like cancer and diabetes (8).
Fortunately, thanks to neuroplasticity, we have the ability to change and rewire our brains. Since not all stress is created equal, the effort and amount of time this takes will depend. But in general, short-term stresses like running late or a work deadline won’t take as much of a toll as longer-term stress like relationship challenges or a prolonged illness (8). Numerous studies and research point to simple, everyday activities you can do to keep your stress in check.
5 Ways to Reduce Holiday Stress
Before starting to tackle your stress, take time to reflect on what your stress triggers are. If stress is the effect, what are the causes? What types of situations, activities, or people stress you out? Simply having this awareness can help you make choices that serve you better. To help you through the holiday frazzle, here are five science-backed activities to help you feel more calm and connected.
1. Wash Your Dishes (Even if You Have a Dishwasher)
Between holiday baking and cooking for your party of one or six, your sink has probably seen cleaner days. And studies show that putting a sponge to a plate can actually help you feel calmer. A Florida State University study found that dishwashers who took the time to focus on the small details—the smell of the soap, the feel of the water, and the sound of the dishes—experienced a 27% decrease in nervousness and 25% increase in inspiration (4).
2. Practice Gratitude (Really)
You’ve likely heard about the benefits of a gratitude practice already and here’s a bit more science to back it up. In one study by Martin Seligman, a leader in the field of positive psychology, participants who considered themselves severely depressed were asked to write down three good things that happened each day for 15 days. The result? Ninety-four percent reported a decrease in depression and 92 percent said they felt a boost in happiness (2). What’s more, research also suggests that a gratitude practice can help us feel closer and more connected in our relationships (6). So whether it’s a smile from a stranger or thoughtful text from a friend, trying writing it down regularly.
3. Help Someone Else
While our ability to help others in person this year might be more limited, there are a lot of other small ways to give—from holding the door for a stranger to donating to a local charity. And neuroscience suggests you might benefit as much as they do. Research shows that when you’re being altruistic the same parts of your brain light up as do when eating a favorite meal or being intimate with your partner (3). So next time you lend a hand, take a moment to notice how it makes you and them feel.
4. Take a Break & Focus On Just One Thing
Enjoy a quiet cup of tea, a hot bath, or a long walk. Pause, take a deep breath and see if you can let your mind totally absorb just that one thing. Why? A Harvard study found that mind-wandering—increasingly common in our multitasking culture—is a cause of our unhappiness. What’s more, we do it 47% of the time (!) (7). Slowing down and engaging with one simple task can help both restore our energy and give a boost to our mood.
5. Soak Up the Good.
Similar to how your body is made up of the foods you eat, your mind is made up of the experiences you have. But most of what we experience stays unconscious and in our implicit memory. On top of that, our brain tends negative (aka negativity bias) which means it takes extra effort to get the positive to sink in. So even if your positive experiences outnumber your negatives ones, the latter can grow faster and give you a gloomy outlook even when things are going great (1).
To help soak up the good, Rick Hanson, psychologist and senior fellow at UC Berkeley, recommends a simple 3-step process (1).
- Turn a positive thing into a positive experience. The next time you catch a smile from a stranger, see a dog wagging its tail, or receive a compliment from a colleague, let it really sink in. Open up and fully feel how it affects you and shifts your mood.
- Savor it. Let the experience linger longer, staying with it for at least 5 to 10 seconds. While you’re letting it marinade, focus on the rewarding parts. For example, how happy and playful the dog made you feel or how seen and valued your colleague made you feel. This can boost dopamine (the feel-good hormone) which will make it easier to recall these moments as well as strengthen them in your implicit memory.
- Let it sink into your mind and body. Like feeling the warm sun on your face, let yourself relax and absorb the sensations and emotions of the experience. Research has found that the longer we hold something in our awareness, the more we’ll imprint the experience in our memory.
Understanding our brain and how stress works in the body, is a key starting point for getting a handle on tough emotions. Knowing that holiday stress is not only common but has some predictable ways of playing out, may be reassuring in and of itself. Despite the heft of new challenges we face this year, studies give us a number of feasible, everyday actions we can take to boost our mood and feel calmer and connected through the holidays.
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- Hanson, Rick. 2009, November 1. Taking In the Good. (Blog post). Greater Good Science Center. U.C. Berkeley. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/taking_in_the_good/
- Baraz, James. 2010, December 9. 6 Simple Practices to Handle Holiday Stress. (Blog post). Greater Good Science Center. U.C. Berkeley. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/6_simple_practices_to_handle_holiday_stress
- Association for Psychological Science. 2015, December 14. Helping others dampens effects of everyday stress. ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/12/151214084744.htm
- Florida State University. 2015, October 1. Chore or stress reliever: Study suggests that washing dishes decreases stress. ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/10/151001165852.htm
- Harvard Health Publishing. 2018, August. Protect your brain from stress. (Blog post). Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/protect-your-brain-from-stress
- Gordon, Amie M; Keltner, Dacher; Kogan, Aleksander; Impett, Emily A; Oveis, Christoper. 2012. To Have and To Hold: Gratitude Promotes Relationship Maintenance In Intimate Bonds. American Psychological Association. https://www.academia.edu/1618988/To_have_and_to_hold_Gratitude_promotes_relationship_maintenance_in_intimate_bonds
- Killingsworth, Matthew A; Gilbert, Daniel T. 2010, November 12. A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind. Harvard University. https://wjh-www.harvard.edu/~dtg/KILLINGSWORTH%20&%20GILBERT%20(2010).pdf
- Shaw, Jonathan. 2019, May-June. Raw and Red-hot. Harvard Magazine. https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2019/05/inflammation-disease-diet