The holiday season can be a time when some things you receive are unwanted: unhealthy stress and weight gain. Unhealthy stress is when you’re stressed too often or for too long. Travel, shopping for gifts, money problems, and family visits can all lead to a spike in unhealthy stress, which can negatively impact your health, well-being, and performance. When your stress response is on overdrive, it also can slow down your metabolism and make it harder to burn fat through exercise, and make it tougher for you to keep up with your workouts. When dealing with unhealthy stress, your self-regulation also can suffer and make it harder to stick to your healthy eating plan, especially when cookies, pies, and other holiday treats are nearly everywhere.
Luckily, your body has a relaxation-response system you can learn to use to balance out unhealthy stress. Even better, you can master certain skills to pump the brakes on stress when it becomes unhealthy. These skills can help you maintain healthy habits, improve your ability to stay calm, and enjoy holiday fun!
Try out a few of the following relaxation-response skills this holiday season. Give it a week or two because like any skill you’re just learning, it takes time to see the benefits. If you don’t like one after you try it, pick another one. The goal is to find at least one skill you’d enjoy practicing regularly. The goal is that you’ll become an expert, so you can effectively calm yourself down when needed. Keep in mind these skills also provide many other health and performance benefits that come with regular practice.
- Mindfulness meditation is the practice of focusing your awareness on the present moment without judgment. It’s simply being aware of what you’re experiencing right now rather than thinking about the past or future. A common approach is to focus on a physical experience such as your breathing, notice where and when your attention wanders, and gently guide it back to your breathing. Regular practice can help increase your memory and concentration, lower your perception of stress and anxiety, and improve your health. Mindfulness can help you to refocus and savor important holiday moments too. For instance, you can be fully present as you watch your family open gifts. Or you can mindfully eat your favorite holiday meal. To learn more, read HPRC’s mindfulness primer and listen to HPRC’s audio guide to mindfulness meditation.
- Deep-breathing exercises can slow your breathing when you use steady, full breaths and longer exhales. This activates your relaxation response, relaxes your muscles, and sends feedback to your brain that all’s good. Regular practice can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. Also, you can use deep breathing in the moment to calm yourself down if you’re having a tough conversation or to recenter yourself after a stressful moment. Learn how deep-breathing works and watch HPRC’s video of deep-breathing exercises to find out more.
- Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a practice in which you tighten and relax various muscles throughout your body. You can start with your feet and work your way up your body as you tighten each muscle group for 5 seconds and then relax for 20–30 seconds. Do at least 2 or 3 reps for each muscle group—or more if you still notice tension. Regular practice can help relieve the physical symptoms of stress, including lower blood pressure, less fatigue, and relief for tense, aching muscles. To learn more, listen to HPRC’s audio guide to PMR.
- Yoga combines stretching exercises, breathing techniques, and meditation. There are many different types of yoga that you can do at home or a yoga studio. Regular practice can help relieve stress, improve sleep, reduce pain, and boost your health—even during holiday travel.
Relaxation-response skills can help you effectively manage your stress levels, avoid stress eating, and maintain healthy habits during the holiday season, so you can have fun. To learn more about your stress mindset and how to make stress your ally, visit HPRC’s Sleep & Stress section.