Yale Stress Center director Rajita Sinha studies the science behind stress and mindfulness. She says practicing a few techniques can put the spirit of peace back into your holidays.
(December 2012) Rajita Sinha, Ph.D., director of the Yale Stress Center, is internationally known for her pioneering research on the science behind stress. While she encourages people to manage their stress throughout the year, many seek help during and soon after the holidays. This is especially true after a loss, such as divorce, the death of a loved one, or recently a home in the destruction of Hurricane Sandy.
“When you let yourself be stressed, you become overloaded and your body reacts. I always come back to taking time for yourself,” says Dr. Sinha, who is a professor of psychiatry at Yale. She shared the following holiday tips.
1.) Focus on one thing at a time.
We all have so much to do: the meals, the gifts, getting relatives together. I tell my kids to think of the brain as a ball. If you have five different things going on at the same time, you’re dividing that ball in to five pieces and breaking up your resources. Sometimes you need to stop and focus on one thing at a time, and commit to doing that for the next 10 minutes or whatever it takes. Then take a break and recoup before you do the next thing.
2.) Keep “money in the stress bank.”
If you have a routine, such as running or walking for 30 minutes a day, keep it up during the holidays. You also want to get enough sleep, eat nutritious foods, drink enough water and keep up with your social network. Those things are money in the stress bank. When you become stressed, you feel overloaded, and your body starts to respond with increases in heartbeats, blood pressure and stress hormones. Maintaining healthy routines can help you set a good baseline and make it easier to return to that baseline.
3.) Do things that make you feel good.
This is very personal. I have people make a list of things they like to do, such as reading a book or getting a manicure—small things, but they’re positive. You don’t have to practice mindfulness or yoga to feel better, but I will say that those activities have been proven to decrease stress. So if you’re searching for something new to make yourself feel better, I would put those in a higher level category.
4.) Eat throughout the day.
When your glucose level drops, there is a direct signal to the brain that makes you want to eat. And you’re not going to want broccoli, you’re going to want something like cheesecake. So you must remember to eat breakfast, and then small, healthy snacks or meals throughout the day to keep your blood sugar at a steady level. Then you’ll be less likely to have five cookies or a great big piece of cheesecake at a holiday party.
5.) Beware of your triggers.
Drinking a lot, overspending and binge eating may seem like part of the holidays, but these things may also be trigger points for you. Focus on what drives your cravings. You might find that your desire for things goes up whenever you see advertisements for them. Looking at what sets you off may help you control your urges.
6.) Pay attention to feelings about life events.
You may have experienced a major loss or a death in the family. Loss is one of the biggest stressors, and holidays have a way of bringing it up. Don’t be surprised if you feel it in your body and see your feelings coming out in your behavior. It’s really important to acknowledge your loss and face up to whatever has changed. Sometimes it is hard to manage on your own and it helps to reach out to talk to someone—either a friend or family member, or a professional.
7.) Take a break from electronic devices.
Some research is showing that we can multitask, but other studies find that when you are being pinged all the time—maybe you get a text or a Facebook message—your body reacts to it right away. Your heart rate goes up and it takes a while to come down. While I’m all for the gadgets, I would absolutely say take a break from them.
8.) Prevent poor post-holiday habits.
How you manage holiday stress can affect your life weeks later. If you’re allowing yourself cheesecake binges, your brain is going to get into the habit of falling for cheesecake, and chances are you’re going to become sensitive to other fatty, creamy foods. This will continue after the holidays and become another way that you respond to stress. You might start looking for ice cream in the freezer more. You want to avoid creating those habits in the first place.
9.) Stay in the moment.
This sounds like a simple thing, but it may be the most important. Stop reacting to those things and just stay in the moment. Don’t act in the moment, just observe it, and observe your thoughts. Notice if your thoughts are judgmental, because those can have the worst sticking quality—then let go of them. Over time and with practice, you can almost free yourself from the urges that become actions and lead to trouble.
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New Haven, CT 06519
The Yale Stress Center offers both fee-based and free classes in mindfulness training, yoga and other stress-reduction techniques. Classes have included:
Space is limited. For schedules and additional information, visit the Yale Stress Center website or call 203-737-3398. The Yale Stress Center also offers behavioral therapies and medications for stress-related conditions.