Most people, when asked, are able to quickly list the stressors they face heading into the holidays. Some wear this list like a badge of honour and are motivated by it. Others collapse under its weight. Consider for a moment the stressor at the top of your holiday list: Is it the pace, or the financial stretch that accompanies the season? The loneliness, or the impending arrival of a difficult visitor that triggers anxiety? Changes in diet, exercise routine and sleep habits can also throw you off your game. So can the eggnog.
What if there were an instant solution to your stress? What if this solution magically arrived at your doorstep tomorrow morning, instantly eliminating No. 1 on your stress list? How would that change things for you?
This is the scenario presented by Dr. Richard Earle, a clinical psychologist who is also director of the Canadian Institute of Stress and the Hans Selye Foundation. Selye's work forms the basis of all modern discussions of biological stress.
Earle uses the scenario above to help people visualize their "better," when life and its pace are manageable, even enjoyable. As the holiday approaches, we can get so overwhelmed that our "better holiday season" becomes impossible to see. According to Statistics Canada, daily stress rates are highest in the core working ages (35 to 54), peaking at about 30 per cent. The holidays can add to this load, as we juggle multiple responsibilities with career and family.
The first step to building an effective defence against stress lies in your visualization of what a "better holiday" would actually look like in action. Once you have it, ask yourself these questions:
What specific things would you (and others) be doing?
What would you be saying, wearing, enjoying?
What would be different about your outlook and attitude?
Answers to these questions provide insight into how stress is affecting your quality of life, health and performance. Our thoughts and emotions have a profound effect on our stress level, which directly affects our health:
An estimated 80 to 90 per cent of all disease is strongly influenced by stress.
70 to 90 per cent of family doctor visits are due to stress-related issues.
To give you a better sense of the power stress has over the body, it drives somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1,500 biochemical reactions within fractions of seconds of you facing the stress. Neurotransmitters are activated, hormones are released and nutrients are metabolized. You likely know this as the "fight or flight" stress response.
The purpose of this powerful reaction is to prepare our body to protect itself, regardless of the threat. "Fight or flight" came in pretty handy in prehistoric times when our ancestors faced a charging lion. And it still shows up today, except the scenario isn't sprawling grasslands, but sprawling big-box stores and the giant lineup that stands between you and the toy at the top of your kid's wish list.
In modern times, most human stress is psycho-social, so the need to respond physically is unnecessary in most cases. But our brains are still hardwired for the lion – when confronted with a stressor, physical or emotional, in the wild or in the toy store, our internal chemistry changes fast. And your body will attempt to maintain an elevated level of performance until your mind tells you that the stressful situation has passed. The whole process takes roughly 30 to 60 minutes – a return to your normal baseline isn't instantaneous.
To compound things, if you encounter a second stressor before the first one is fully resolved, you have a pile-on effect. Stress is cumulative. Returning to the giant lineup in the big-box store, imagine you strike out there only to try another store and strike out again. Feel your blood pressure rising just thinking about it?
As you head into the holidays, pay attention to these common signs and symptoms of stress: headache; fatigue and trouble sleeping; back, shoulder and neck pain; anxiety and depression; digestive trouble; irritability and mood swings; dizziness and/or light-headedness.
Making a choice to be strategic about how you use your energy over the holidays will improve your stress resiliency and capacity. Think of your energy as a precious resource you have to use every day. It is finite. Do you really need to attend two different holiday parties on the same night at opposite ends of town? You have choices. Be smart about them. Or, try to do everything at your own peril.
The good news is that the body is brilliant at letting us know when we are struggling to keep pace. Listen and react. Proactively take control of the holiday calendar and schedule recovery time. By learning how to intentionally harness the power of the stress response, you can elevate your resiliency this holiday to levels that may surprise you while limiting the negative impacts of chronic stress. Invest your energy wisely. Bring on the lions, whatever form they may take.
Dr. Dwight Chapin, B.Sc(H)., D.C., is the clinic director of High Point Wellness Centre in Mississauga, team chiropractor for the CFL's Toronto Argonauts and on-site clinician for employees of The Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter @HighPtWellness.