The University Record, December 13, 1999

Balance ‘have-tos,’ ‘want-tos’ to beat holiday stress

By Andi McDonnell
Health System Public Relations

Here come the holidays! Beautiful decorations, visiting with family and friends, relaxing by the fire, delicious elaborate meals. . . . . and shopping, cleaning, card-giving, parties and other commitments. Suddenly, what you hoped would be a wonderful holiday turns into a stressful hectic rush of activity.

Many people set themselves up for problems by starting the season with an unrealistic vision of what the holiday should be like, and when the Currier and Ives version of the season doesn’t materialize, they’re not only disappointed—they may get sick.

In fact, says an expert from the Health System, exhaustion, insomnia, stomach upset, ulcers, headaches, muscle tension and high blood pressure may result from too much stress. Stress, she says, even can make you more vulnerable to infections, heart disease and cancer.

“The holidays, surprisingly, are a stressful time for many of us,” says Peggy Kennedy, from the M-Fit health promotion division. “We think of the holidays as enjoyment and excitement. But in reality, we are overloaded with visitors and preparations for the holidays.”

Some stress is good, Kennedy adds, but our bodies don’t differentiate between positive and negative stress. The body just reacts to excess demands put upon it. And, everyone reacts differently to stress. It might express itself physically, as in the maladies described above, yet stress can also trigger emotional reactions that differ in each person.

“People might be irritable, but yet not understand why they are easily angered,” Kennedy says. “They might be depressed over the holidays. They might feel lonely or bored at a time when they expect to be happy.”

But before you decide to skip the entire season, make the choice to manage your stress with a little thought and planning. Start by recognizing that the holidays can be very stressful. Then, try some techniques that can help you manage the situation—managing your time, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy diet and getting plenty of sleep

“Time management is probably the most critical part of managing stress over the holidays,” Kennedy says. “There is a high demand on your time; pare down the demand. Select to participate in the activities and events that are most important to you.” Know your limits. Do not take on more responsibility than you can handle.

Physical exercise also is an excellent way to combat stress over the holidays. Regular exercise reduces the release of stress-related hormones.

“If you already have an exercise program, keep up with the routine. If you don’t, interject some physical activity into the holiday preparations, such as parking some distance from the mall or walking the mall prior to shopping,” she says.

Maintain a healthy diet since worrying about gaining the average six to 12 pounds will not help your stress level or your mental or physical well being. Avoid going to parties when you’re already famished. Once there, select small portions of your three favorite dishes, then move away from the buffet table. Watch your portions as well as the fat and salt in special holiday foods. Focus on friends and family, not the food, Kennedy suggests.

Sleep also is essential to reducing stress. People who are tired do not cope well in stressful situations. Chronic sleep deprivation is common. Make sure you get enough sleep so you wake up refreshed and energetic prior to the alarm going off. If that is not the case, go to bed 30 to 60 minutes earlier for a week. Assess the situation and adjust as necessary, Kennedy says.

In the haste of the season, don’t forget to take care of yourself. Balance in all areas of your life is the key.


Facts about stress:

  • A certain amount of stress is normal and needed. But too much can result in health problems such as ulcers, back pain, migraines, high blood pressure, stomach disorders and insomnia.

  • Stress can make you more vulnerable to infections, heart disease and cancer.

  • Stress is the most common cause of ill health in our society, probably underlying as many as 70 percent of all visits to family doctors.


    To find out more about stress, call TeleCare, 1-800-742-2300, category 1010, or visit the Web at UMHS Health Topics A to Z: Mental Health, www.med.umich.edu/1libr/mental/stress01.htm; Internet Mental Health, www.mentalhealth.com/mag1/p51-str.html; drkoop.com: Transforming Your Stress, www.drkoop.com/wellness/seasonal/wise/stress.asp; OnHealth.com: To Relieve Stress, onhealth.com/ch1/in-depth/item/item,25209_1_1.asp.