December brings festive parties, fun times with family, favourite traditions…and stress. How much stress? According to a Healthline survey, the combination of joy and pressure that makes up the month of December means that more than 60% of us find the holiday season “somewhat to very stressful.”
Considering the many factors that make up holiday stress—tricky family politics, icy winter weather, busy schedules, intermittent exercise, endless appetizers, and of course, the extra cash outflow that’s synonymous with the season—the real question is: How do we NOT end up feeling this way?
One study found that Canadians spend about $1,500 extra in the month of December; Americans spend an extra $1000. For many people, that financial hit just adds insult to injury. It’s not surprising many of us end December feeling as though we need a holiday from our holiday!
How Stress Affects Your Digestion
Have you ever noticed that the gut-brain and the stomach-mind connection kicks into overdrive in December? It makes sense. There’s extra stress, and there’s also extra food. And to further complicate matters, it’s often the kind of food that can wreak havoc with your gut.
Fight or Flight
Every part of your digestive system can be affected by stress. When cortisol (the “stress hormone”) kicks in, your esophagus can go into spasm, reducing digestive activity. This causes food to sit in your stomach like a brick. Also, blood flow can slow down along the entire digestive tract as your body prioritizes the blood supply to the muscles while you’re in “fight or flight” mode. Ayurvedic Medicine considers this to be diminished “agni” or digestive fire. This shift can lead to an imbalance in your gastrointestinal tract that results in boating, cramping, diarrhea or constipation, and a variety of other digestive issues. Not exactly festive!
Calming the Digestive System
How can you combat the Great December Bellyache? Yoga and Ayurveda both advocate taking a few minutes to meditate or breathe deeply before a meal. This can activate your body’s “relaxation response” and switch on your parasympathetic nervous system which controls digestion. This brings the blood flow back to the stomach and intestines, allowing digestion to take place as it should. As an added bonus, this practice may also lead to more mindful eating at a time of year when eating more consciously can be very beneficial. One study even found a correlation between meditation and increased vegetable consumption with lower meat consumption (without any prompting of participants to choose certain foods).
It’s a good idea to increase your consumption of warm, cooked foods or even take a triphala herbal supplement before meals to help maintain healthy digestion. Another way to aid digestion is to chew on organic ginger candies after meals. They are easy to carry around and are quite tasty, too!
The Correlation Between Stress and Back Pain
Anxiety, stress and back pain often come together in a distressing trifecta. To make matters worse, they often intensify each other. How does that work? When you’re stressed, your breathing changes, reducing the flow of prana and increasing the vata dosha that is responsible for muscle and nerve tension. This creates muscle tension and restless nerves. In fact, chronic stress—and chronic pain—can eventually rewire the way your brain works.
Daily self-care routines as simple as swishing warm water in your mouth relaxes your facial muscles. A warm oil self-massage helps to relax muscles. Alternative breathing exercises help prevent the rewiring of the brain. With these quick methods, there’s no reason to neglect self-care during the busy holiday season!
The Role of Posture
Paying more attention to your posture is a good first step for getting a handle on back pain. It may sound simple but working with a health care practitioner on your everyday movement patterns at work and at home can bring your body back into alignment, reduce tension, relax your muscles and improve your breathing—all of which have a positive effect on breaking the cycle of pain.
Also, consider giving yourself the gift of health with some healthy treats! Invest in a restorative yoga class or an ayurvedic massage. Not only will you relieve some of the emotional pressure that comes with the season, manual therapies can help break the cycle of stress, aches and pains. Buy yourself healthy treats that boost your immune and digestive systems such as herbal teas, drinks and superfood-boosted sweets.
How Stress Affects Sleep
Do visions of sugarplums dance in your head in December? Or would nightmares about bill payments be a more accurate description?
In addition to financial stress, many other factors can impact your sleep in December. We’re often eating and drinking more, as well as staying out later.
It’s important to maintain a solid sleep hygiene routine during these busy times. Try to stick to your regular schedule as much as possible (yes, even on weekends). Create a sleep-inducing bedtime routine. That means putting your phone and other devices away a couple of hours before bedtime and keeping them out of your bedroom while you sleep. Many people say that they need their phone alarm to wake them up, but an old-fashioned alarm clock can also do the job.
Making sure your room is cool, dark and quiet is another essential element of a good night’s sleep. Fortunately, many products are available to optimize your environment, including blackout shades, white noise machines, humidifiers and fans.
Herbs for When Sleep Eludes You
Effective herbs are available to help you through rough patches and get you back on track with your sleep.
Brahmi or bacopa is a nervine tonicthat has been effectively used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries and on all ages. It is an herb that supports restful sleep, calms emotional turbulence and also helps improve concentration and alertness.
Tulsi or holy basil is called “the mother of all herbs” and has undoubtedly been proven to be one of the best adaptogens for combating many modern lifestyle-related health problems. Early research shows that taking holy basil extract by mouth in the morning and at night decreases symptoms of stress, including forgetfulness, sexual problems, exhaustion and sleep problems.
Tagara or valerian contains a number of compounds that may help promote calmness, improve stress response and maintain adequate levels of mood-stabilizing brain chemicals. It’s been coined “nature’s valium” and has been known to work well to aid in sleep issues (mainly insomnia).
This the Season for Self-Care and Connections
Of course, the best way to treat stress is to tackle it at the source. At this time of the year, we’re all too often the source of our own stress. Maybe we get so caught up in finding the “perfect” presents and hosting the “perfect” party that we forget the real purpose of the holidays: connection. The plain truth is that a memorable holiday does not have to cost a lot of money or cause stress if we stay mindful of what the holiday is truly about.
The Best Present of All
In fact, at least one study has found that the best gifts are experiences, not things. And often, the key component of a memorable experience is the company you’re with. So instead of pushing yourself to buy more or do more, consider putting some time aside to just hang out with your friends and family or attend community events. In the end, human connection is what we all want for the holidays. The Sages of Vedic Medicine have rightly guided us to focus on building our divine essence or “ojas” which is enriched when you are around like-minded people, love what you do and have compassion for nature and other beings.
Article prepared by Ismat Dhala-Nathani, Doctorate of Natural Medicine, Ayurvedic Practitioner