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Dealing with stress

Christmas brings out the best – and worst – in people. Take the angst out of the festive season with a positive attitude and some smart lifestyle choices, MiNDFOOD reports.

Dealing with stress

While Christmas is a time of celebration, it can also bring incredible stress. Whether you look forward with excitement to the shopping and preparations or with dread at all the disruption, extra work and drain on resources, Christmas is a festival which makes great demands on our physical and emotional energy, says Sydney-based psychologist Janine Rod. Routines are disrupted, diets forgotten, and anxieties build up on all levels.

Unrealistic expectations contribute 
to health-crunching anxiety. Financial stress can also ramp up stress at this time of year. In fact a 2006 report by the Wesley Mission found that stress was a major 
factor in addictive behaviour and relationship breakdown. Other stress triggers include work demands, illness, or a change in personal circumstances, especially when combined with the pressures of the festive season.

In part, unrealistic expectations about life in general, but holiday season in particular, also contribute to health-crunching anxiety, says Rod. But, a reality check, combined with what researchers suggest are smarter lifestyle choices, can remove you from the clutches of stress into the realm of good physical and mental health, say experts.


Small – and perhaps major – disasters will happen whether they are financial, family-related or a direct impact of the festive season (you forget to buy batteries, the turkey burns, relatives instigate arguments over dinner and you run out of grandma’s favourite sherry). That’s life. But if you can learn to face these little setbacks with style and grace you’ll have a more relaxed holiday, says Rod.

According to Dr Marc Cohen, Professor of Complementary Medicine at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, when your response to an event is negative or ‘stressful’, your blood pressure rises, platelets become stickier, white blood cells mobilise and cortisol levels increase.

A 2009 study by researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, North Carolina, shows that social stress could be an important precursor to heart disease by speeding up the harmful build up of plaque in blood vessels. Stress has also been implicated as a precursor to cancer. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry reported that a protein that causes the death of cancer cells becomes inactive when exposed to stress hormone epinephrine.

It may pay to remind yourself, then, that whatever goes wrong, it’s not life threatening, but your response could be.

To lower stress, blood pressure and cortisol then, acceptance is also crucial, adds Rod.

If all else fails, take time out with 
a spouse or another sympathetic listener and vent your frustrations.

To further reduce stress, keynote speaker and author of What Made You Think of That (Allen & Unwin, $23) Gary Bertwistle says switching off from your working world is crucial. Focus on too many things at once and stress will blunt the growth and connections of nerve cells in the part of the brain that helps to keep you focused, according to a 2009 study by researchers from Cornell’s Weill Medical College in the US.

Christmas is a time when you should be able to put down your mobile phone, disconnect your computers and catch up on sleep, family, friends and good food, says Bertwistle.


According to researchers at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in the US, exercise increases the production of the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins; increases self-confidence and lowers the symptoms associated with mild depression and anxiety.

In practice it also serves as a distraction from the stressor, reducing muscle tension and cortisol secretion, while a 2007 study by the University of Kansas suggests it may make you less physiologically reactive to stress.

Sydney-based personal trainer Debbie Rossi suggests aerobic outdoor activities that get you away from the festive chaos.

A run outdoors, bushwalking, kayaking, dog walking… nothing beats stress more than breathing in clean fresh air. Take the focus off getting your heart rate up and instead, exercise all your senses.

Scheduling some quiet time to work out mentally will also pay dividends.

According to leading wellness researcher Dr Bernie Siegel, a surgeon and professor at Yale University: Meditation tends to normalise blood pressure, pulse rate and levels of stress hormones in the blood. It raises the pain threshold and reduces one’s biological age. In short, it reduces wear and tear on body and mind.

Research suggests meditation also significantly increases antibodies to common viruses such as influenza, 
a good enough reason alone to take 
15 or 20 minutes time just for yourself.


It may sound obvious, but going easy 
on the alcohol and party foods and eating nutritionally-dense foods will support 
and balance your nervous system, says NSW-based personal trainer Donovan Blake, who has a degree in exercise and nutrition science.

Vitamin B-rich wholegrains and legumes are ideal choices, as are low glycaemic index foods that keep blood sugar – and moods – stable.

Avocado, fish, olive oil and coconut oil are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids that are anti-inflammatory and soothing for the nervous system, says Blake.

Regularly adding poultry, sardines, salmon, fresh tuna, nuts and seeds to your diet will boost levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps to make us feel happy.

Co-incidentally, the Christmas turkey contains mood-enhancing tryptophan, an essential amino acid that is converted into serotonin, while those strawberries for dessert are rich in vitamin C that helps counteract free radicals that place the body under more stress. But, surprisingly, if all else fails, a trip to McDonalds may placate your nerves.

New Australian research (2008) found that eating foods high in fat and sugar reduces anxiety levels. Researchers at the University of New South Wales gave young rats, who had been taken away from their mothers, a diet of either junk food or healthy food. They found the animals on the junk food diet were less anxious, proving that there is some truth in the idea of comfort eating.

Of course, while it might make you feel calmer, that doesn’t mean it’s good for you, especially long-term.


Start now

“Get sorted early and you’ll alleviate a lot of the anxiety that comes from not being organised,” says Bertwistle. Make lists, buy presents, stock up on groceries – whatever it takes to make the time relaxed and seamless.

Choose your companions

“While the holidays present many opportunities to bond with family, it can also present significant stress when family conflict arises,” says Rod. “If seeing relatives causes you great amounts of stress, it’s OK to celebrate with just your partner or children.”

Say no

You don’t have to do everything that’s asked of you. Delegate responsibility to your children and spouse. Learn time management skills, says Dr Tim Sharp, director of The Happiness Institute.

Get some perspective

Share with someone less fortunate by volunteering at a homeless shelter for a day. If
 you have children, it’s a great way to show them the true meaning of Christmas.

Have a laugh

Studies by American researcher Dr Lee Berk have found that laughter increases the levels of feel-good beta-endorphins.

Remember to Breathe

A massage is an ideal way to downsize stress at Christmas, but if you only have 10 minutes, lie down or sit in a comfortable chair, then tense and relax, every muscle in your body.

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