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A special thanks to Leon and Arden, two readers who requested information on dealing with stress and the holidays! Thank you for the feedback and keep sending the great suggestions.

With holiday parties, entertaining responsibilities, travel, and separating feuding relatives, the holidays blend high expectations, time demands, and forced interactions between people that may not always see eye to eye.

Research has shown a greater incidence of heart attacks and health problems during the holiday season, with differences not explained by the temperature alone. Drivers seem to be the combination of cold weather (causing your blood vessels to constrict and raise blood pressure), emotional stress (Aunt Gertrude refuses to sit near cousin Jack this year, and your in-laws are requesting a last-minute change of plans), lack of sleep, overeating, and less regular exercise scattered with moments of high exertion (shoveling snow in the cold).

However, with a little forethought and knowledge, you can have more control over the situation and allow this time to bring you more enjoyment than anguish.   So read the list below, and bring on the season!

  1. Don’t forget the healthy physical activity you maintain the rest of the year.
    • It always bears repeating that exercise reduces stress, lowers your blood pressure, and overall improves your well-being.  Yet, when we get more stressed and busy, these truly “life-saving” habits are often the first we drop.  I know that you are torn between many commitments, but 15-30 minutes of exercise 4-5 days a week can increase your energy level, lower levels of stress hormones in your blood, and lower blood pressure and heart rate (not to mention help you fit into that holiday outfit or suit!).  No matter what age you are, this is important! I don’t care WHAT activity you do—the most important factor is that it is something you LIKE, as that will keep you going. Research shows that listening to music can help you go longer and farther, so load up the tunes and go! Think of it as your time during which you don’t have to answer the phone, answer email, or even think about your to-do list—it may be the only time you have just for “you” during your day, so think of it as your indulgence! I find that I do need to keep a list of “notes” on my iphone—some of my best solutions to the day’s obstacles come to me while I’m running!
    • As far as the mental benefits of exercise, we know that it also makes you more resilient to interpersonal stressors [such as mean cousin Maude who has bullied you since you were in grade school or your grouchy boss].  A recent study compared the responses of two groups of mice to bullying and social stressors.  Those that had access to exercise wheels and tubes showed minimal reaction to the bullying and stress, while those that had no exercise showed signs of depression and withdrawal.
  2. Be reasonable about your eating
    • Cookies, cakes, holiday desserts and cocktails—so many options! It’s important to be realistic about what you do and don’t eat—and not to swing to extremes of excess (remember, the calories in a single large bagel will undo all of the calories burned from a three mile run) or deprivation (if you have been careful, then a single piece of dessert will not destroy your diet—so set aside the guilt and enjoy periodically)
  3. Have a laugh break
    • Who knew that those episodes of SNL or those funny videos on youtube are good for you? Researchers did. Laughter increases your uptake of oxygen, releases endorphins in your brain, reduces your cortisol-driven stress response (hence lowering both blood pressure and heart rate), and eases muscle tension It also can strengthen your immune system and relieve pain.  So, sometimes, laughter really is the best medicine.  Keep a list of your favorite websites, funny videos, memories, or whatever tickles your funny bone.  When you feel the tension building, think of these (and read or watch them if you have a few minutes).  I keep a list of some of my favorites on hand in my smart-phone, just for this purpose! Send me a comment and let me know your favorites!
  4. Acknowledge caregiver stress and delegate your workload
    • More than 65 million Americans provide care to a loved one, and the stress of the holidays can make a caregiver feel even more vulnerable.  If you are a caregiver for someone in your family, take time to accept help, and even delegate some of the care if you can. Connect with other caregivers to build your own network and accept help when you need a breather.
  5. When you’re packing for your trip—don’t forget to pack extra doses of medications, as well as a list of all of medications, physicians, and medical problems! THEN, put them in your carry-on, not checked baggage
    • This should be the #1 item on your packing list! [ie, it’s right up there with your underwear in terms of importance].  When you’re rushing to pack, these crucial items are often forgotten, but missing just a few doses can lead to serious medical problems. Also, keep a list of your medical conditions and prescriptions so that if you have to go to an out-of-town hospital, the physician can still be informed about your health.  This is especially important around the holidays, when it may be even more challenging to reach your regular physician, pharmacy, or hospital
    • Don’t put the medications in checked baggage.  Remember murphy’s law? If you put your critical medication in the checked bag, then the bag will be lost.  It’s like the laws of physics—immutable.
    • Take enough medications for your entire length of your trip—then add in enough for 4 more days.  You never know when an unexpected storm or flight delay will occur, and when that happens, the last thing you need is a secondary stressor of not having enough medication.
  6. Be cautious in the cold weather and with exertion-in yourself and older family members
    • So, all the family is coming to dinner, it just snowed and covered the walk, and the boy you hire to shovel snow is off for the holidays—who is to shovel the snow? Two of the drivers linked to heart problems around the holidays include colder weather (which causes blood vessels to constrict, increasing blood pressure) and exertion, so it’s no surprise that hurrying outside to shovel the snow could cause a dangerous combination.  Keep these factors in mind, especially if you are on blood pressure medication or have heart disease, and don’t let the stressors of the holiday trump common sense.
  7. Don’t delay seeking medical care over the holidays.
    • Some of the studies that show increased rates of heart attacks and other maladies over the holidays suggest that one cause may be that people may delay seeking care for concerning symptoms during the holidays.  If a symptom would prompt you to seek care during any other time in the year, then it should now, regardless of who is coming to visit, or when the turkey is ready.  Trust me, your family and friends will be grateful.

I wish you and your loved ones the best holiday season.

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