12/23/2014 05:03 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

Stressed-Out Holiday Solution: Sleep on It

Most of us have something planned for the holidays, even if it's just a simple get-together with friends. When my husband and I lived in New York City, far from our families, our favorite holiday treats were hearing the choir Chanticleer sing its annual Christmas concert at the Met Museum and going to the movies on Christmas Day. They were simple plans, but wonderful.

Like everyone, we've had our share of stressful Christmases, too. There was the year we traveled home to Minnesota and my mom tried roasting the 22-pound turkey on the rotisserie grill out on the patio. The tension mounted as the bird kept getting stuck and scorching on one side. Mom finally lost her patience, tromped through the knee-deep snow once last time, grabbed the rotisserie stick and flung the turkey into the air. We all watched our dinner fly across the yard and drop into a snowbank.

We can laugh about the scene now, but my mom's stress level was no fun for her (or us) at the time. Holiday foibles can trip up simple and grand plans alike and ramp up our stress to dead-serious levels. For example, more fatal heart attacks occur on Christmas day, Dec. 26, and Jan. 1 -- in that order -- than on any other days of the year.

The causes of the "Merry Christmas Coronary" or "Happy Hanukkah Heart Attack" have been debated for years, such as being out in cold weather or the extra exertion of shoveling snow. If these were primary causes, however, we wouldn't see the same numbers in balmy Los Angeles. So, what is really to blame?

One of the main factors medical research points to in a short-list of potential causes, according to Robert A. Kloner, M.D., Ph.D., is an overload of emotional stress.

There are many ways to alleviate stress, but one powerful natural remedy that is free and available to everyone is often overlooked: our dreams.

Dreaming is nature's emotional balancing act. Just like every other system in the body that strives to achieve balance, or homeostasis, the dreaming mind attempts to keep us on an even keel.

In my work with dreams through my dream workshops and with individuals, I have witnessed many examples of dreams that have helped reduce stress. One client, for example, the director of a performing arts organization, was facing a tough challenge with his upcoming production. An unexpected communications problem was throwing a wrench into every item on his time-crunched agenda. There was still time to cancel and release the artists according to their contracts, but he was committed to providing this opportunity for the performers. He felt responsible for a lot of people, was racked with worry, and couldn't sleep. This was taking a heavy toll on his life at work and at home. Finally, he fell asleep late one night and had a dream:

I am standing on the bow of a boat that is tied to a large pier with ropes. The boat is facing out to sea. An old man in a white captain's hat walks onto the pier and slips the ropes off the pilings. I feel myself slowly gliding away from the pier and am filled with a profound sense of release. I spread out my arms and take in the fresh air and glorious sense of freedom.

He woke up feeling as if a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He immediately went to his computer and sent an email announcement to his cast explaining why he had to cancel the production and re-schedule it for the next season. The dream, which convinced him that he must untie himself from his current plan, allowed him to act on that idea and return to a healthy, balanced emotional state.

This holiday season, listen to your dreams. Your sleep is filled with stress-relieving power. Here are five dream facts that I hope will inspire you to launch an exciting, life-enhancing adventure with your dreams:

  1. We all dream, every night. Just because you do not remember your dreams does not mean you are not dreaming. Each of us spends at least two hours dreaming every night.
  2. Dreams are important. The fact that every human being dreams every night means that nature considers dreaming essential. Rather than waste this source of healing and wisdom, it is in our best interest to take our dreams seriously.
  3. Everyone can learn to remember their dreams. The unconscious mind responds to the power of suggestion, so start with giving yourself this simple cue before going to sleep: place a notebook and pen by your bed and tell yourself that you will remember and record a dream in the morning.
  4. Everyone can learn to understand their dreams. After getting accustomed to the rich "image language" of dreams, we can all become masters of this inner guidance system. Dreams are not meant to be mysterious riddles, but insights about your life at this moment, including your relationships, your work, your spirituality, and the ideas and issues that matter to you.
  5. Dreaming is our native tongue. How well you speak it is up to you!

Antonia Felix, MA, MFA, is a bestselling author, educator, and creator of "Deep Knowing: A Dream Workshop." She is an adjunct professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota.