The Holiday Paradox of High-Stress Fun

It's that time of year. Winter holidays can bring warmth and joy to our lives as we take some time off and reconnect with friends and family. Unfortunately, they can also be a source of stress, especially when they necessitate traveling across the country or scrambling to get work done prior to leaving the office for vacation time. Holidays can throw us off our regular routines, so having a holiday plan in place is critical to managing mental health and wellness during this fun but often stressful time.

Here are a few things to consider when putting holiday preparations into place.

Let Yourself Indulge in Holidays Treats…To an Extent

People often consume 3,000 to 5,000 extra calories over the holiday period than they do the rest of the year. We make a lot of good excuses when it comes to justifying our treat consumption and, quite frankly, many of them are valid. The holidays do only come once a year so you won’t see many of those treats until the next cycle around the sun.

That said, a lot of our indulgence tends to take the form of impulse eating—we mindlessly eat high-sugar foods which trigger the reward centers in our brains, temporarily staving off the side effects of winter blues but also increasing cravings for more and more treats. We also feel a lot of pressure from coworkers and loved ones to “give in” and try family-secret-recipe baked goods (whether we really want to or not).

You don’t always have to say no, but at least attempting to eat these goodies in moderation can go a long way toward keeping the caloric intake under control and reducing the inflammation related to overconsumption. Keep in mind that our enjoyment of what we’re eating tends to lessen after the third bite, so focus on savoring variety over quantity and keep in tune with your reactions to what you’re eating—are you really appreciating it or are you on autopilot?

With your own baking, try swapping some of the less-than-healthful ingredients with ones that are less likely to clog arteries and cause blood sugar spikes and crashes. In many recipes, you can replace up to half of your fat (ie, butter and lard) with applesauce. You can also try swapping out white, refined sugar with ingredients like coconut sugar or maple syrup—these can lessen the glycemic index of your treats.

When it comes to holiday meals, don’t feel like you have to completely give up on the candied yams or turkey gravy. Focus, instead, on filling half your plate with vegetables (preferably ones not doused in butter) and allow yourself to eat whatever you’d like beyond that. Nutrient-dense and fiber-rich vegetables will not only help fill you up, they’ll help keep your digestive system regulated.

Make a List and Check It Twice but Don’t Worry About Perfection

In the days leading up to major holiday events, keep a list of all that needs to be done prior to the big day.

That said, make sure you leave room to be flexible. Decide what the high-priority items are, and allow yourself to put off less important things until later, especially if they’re causing stress. It’s a hectic time, so be realistic and accept that not everything is going to run smoothly. These special gatherings only come around a few times a year—they’ll be over before you know it so prioritize connecting with friends and family and enjoying the little things.

Don’t Slack Off on Getting Enough Rest

Getting in a good night’s sleep will help keep you in control of daily activity; sleep, after all, provides mental energy and focus.

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Stay Regular with Your Exercise Routine

Physical activity revs up your metabolism and increases the number of feel-good endorphins and dopamine available in your brain. Whether working out in the gym, at home or outside, plan regular activity to help get your blood pumping.

Not feeling enthusiastic about dragging yourself to the gym for some holiday fitness? Shake things up! Try a new sport (did you know curling is great for cardio?), get to the mountains for some snowshoeing, chop some wood for the fireplace or plan some fun activities with your family (like building a snowman or walking around your neighborhood at night to check out the light displays).

Try and do some of your holiday activities outside. Breathing in fresh air can help with calming the nerves and reducing stress; if you’re able to get outside in the morning, it’ll help provide energy for the rest of the day. Getting outside can also alleviate symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder—any amount of sunshine you’re able to take in during the day will help boost your vitamin D levels and counteract the effects of the winter blues.

Take Your Hydration Seriously

Drinking enough H2O should be high on your list of holiday priorities. Not drinking enough water can cue pains in the stomach which you may mistake for hunger when, in fact, you’re actually dehydrated. Dehydration can also cause inflammation and interruptions in the functioning of a variety of vital organs, so drink often—even before meals and especially prior to cocktail hour.

Control Stress and Practice Self-Forgiveness

Don't try to do it all. If the prospect of cooking for your whole extended family or your group of friends feels daunting, ask your loved ones to bring their favorite dish and make your holiday gathering a potluck. And don’t feel like you have to take on the post-meal clean up alone: your loved ones are probably more than happy to help our in the kitchen—just ask. Making clean up a group effort can give you all time for establishing connections, chatting about old memories and welcoming new members to the family.

Don’t Forget to Have Fun

The holidays are meant to be a joyous time. Make sure you practice self-love and allow yourself to cherish all the festivities, food, memories and moments for bonding with friends and family. No one’s family is perfect so don’t expect your holiday gatherings to be. Focus on controlling what you can, and allow yourself to sink into the enjoyment of everything else.