Thanksgiving dinner means gathering with family over good food to reflect on what you're thankful for. Unfortunately, for many people, it also involves holiday stress. Due to the effect of stress on immune system function and its ability to impact the rest of your body and mind, you must take steps to ease tension throughout the holiday season.
In 2020, many people scaled back celebrating due to the pandemic. Thanksgiving 2021 will be different than many previous holidays. Vaccines have now made it possible to gather together again, but we come together with the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. We've all gone through collective trauma, and many suffer from symptoms of depression and anxiety that they didn't have before the coronavirus. Plus, Americans are politically divided, and supply chain disruptions may mean some Thanksgiving favorites will be absent from the table this year. All of this adds up to a potential for increased family conflict and stress.
The Stages of Stress
Stress responses go through three stages, and understanding how they progress can help you better see how the stress cycle impacts your life. The stress response begins with the alarm stage, where your heart rate and blood pressure rise to defend your body from a perceived threat. Stress hormones are released to bolster your defenses. Once the stressor has passed, you enter the resistance stage. The body adapts and begins to break down the hormones that were previously released.
Our stress response is meant to protect us from imminent threats like a predator chasing us. This stage allows us to escape or fight the threat and then return to a normal state. The problem is that today's stressors are very different from the types of perils our ancient ancestors faced. Work and family stress often persist, continuously causing the body to go through the alarm and resistance stages.
After cycling through the first two stages of the stress response, again and again, your body can reach the exhaustion stage. Your body may no longer have the ability to cope with the stressor. Energy levels can plummet, and normal bodily processes may lose efficiency. If you enter the exhaustion stage, you're more likely to experience the physical and mental effects of stress.
Mental and Physical Health Effects of Stress
Holiday stress may cause:
- Mood swings
- Sleep problems
- Less satisfaction from celebrations and hobbies
- Feelings of urgency
- Clammy, sweaty hands
- Cold hands and feet
- Digestive problems
- Tension headaches
How Does Stress Affect the Immune System?
Stress can negatively impact your immune system. Increased levels of stress hormones can impair immunity, and when you reach the body's exhaustion point, you may lack sufficient energy to power the immune system. This can leave you more susceptible to viruses and bacteria that cause infections. Scientists also believe that the impact of stress on the immune system contributes to some auto-immune disorders like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Negative Effects of Stress on Sleep
As stress impacts so many areas of health, it makes sense that stress also negatively impacts our ability to sleep as well as sleep quality. Stress raises levels of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and with chronic stress, the levels of these hormones can stay chronically elevated. Under normal circumstances, these hormones serve to put the body in a state of high alert so it can effectively deal with the stressor at hand. However, during chronic stress, these hormones remain unusually elevated, leading to detrimental effects on health and, necessarily, on sleep quality.
However, the relationship between stress and sleep can be a self-perpetuating cycle since, while stress negatively impacts sleep, poor sleep accentuates the impact of stress on the body. This is why it is essential to adopt healthy lifestyle, dietary and supplemental measures to deal with stress as well as enhance sleep quality.
Holiday Stress Tips
To combat the effects of stress, follow these tips:
- Identify stressors ahead of time. Think about the sort of things that are likely to cause you stress. Do you experience anxiety due to the thought of overeating? Are you prone to fighting with a particular relative? Do you become overwhelmed by cooking and decorating? By naming the potential stressors, you can formulate a plan of how to minimize them. For example, you may want to take a smaller plate and refuse seconds, avoid touchy topics of conversation or scale back the celebration to address the previously named examples of stressors.
- Stay organized. Even if you don't usually use a planner to map out your day, try doing so during the holiday season. Creating a schedule for completing tasks will help you better manage your time and decrease stress.
- Keep track of your inner monologue. All of us have an inner voice that seeks to undermine us. During times of stress, it tells us lies that can increase tension and ruin our mood. When you send yourself negative messages throughout the holiday season, consciously refute them. If you become stuck on a flaw, force yourself to name two positive attributes that you have.
- Remain active. Even though you're busy during the holiday season, don't skip those workouts. Exercise can help alleviate stress and strengthen your immune system.
- Limit your intake of alcoholic drinks. Alcohol and stress are linked. Many people turn to drink to get through the holidays, hoping that they'll be better able to deal with family and other stressors if they're a little inebriated. While alcohol may lower your inhibitions and make stressors feel more distant, it won't solve the problem. Drinking too much could increase the chances of conflict, and the symptoms of hangovers can make it harder to cope with stress when you're sober.
- Try relaxation on the fly. When you feel the tension rising, take some slow, deep breaths. Focus on your inhalation and exhalation and try to make them last for an equal length of time. You can also try deep muscle relaxation by tensing critical muscles in your body like your shoulders, arms, abdomen, buttocks, and legs for 10 seconds at a time.
- Stress and Sleep. American Psychological Association. Accessed at: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/sleep