Almost immediately after we clear the dishes from our Thanksgiving table, the countdown to holiday season madness begins. Try as we might to be merry, door busting sales, social gatherings, family feuds, tipping and tippling all contribute to increased stress at a time when we should be counting our blessings instead of blood pressure levels.
When we are stressed, our bodies' natural alarm system that is designed to help us to respond effectively to short-lived emergencies, starts sounding like Salvation Army bells. And many studies show that stress, especially when chronic, can wreak havoc on our body and in our brain. When we are tense, we produce a surge of cortisol, known as the "stress hormone," which has been shown to be toxic to the neurons in the brain's important memory center called the hippocampus. This can add to that mental fog we often experience during the holidays.
When we are stressed, our concentration, decision-making skills and efficiency while juggling a busy schedule are all impaired. We often add insult to injury by making unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as eating too many sugary treats and drinking too much alcohol, which puts even more stress on our bodies and our brains. My advice, therefore, is to make a resolution this year to nurture and care for your brain over the holidays. Here are seven ways that you can do this:
Laugh It Up
Unless you are Martha Stewart or you love hosting parties, invite your friends to join you at a comedy club instead. If you are a homebody, stay in and watch your favorite holiday movies, such as "When Harry Met Sally...," "Miracle on 34th Street" or "Yentl." Comedies are especially good this time of year because studies suggest that laughter reduces the level of cortisol and improves our mood through the release of endorphins.
Savor Your Senses
The holidays are filled with wonderful sights (lights, decorations), smells (scented candles, wreaths, pine trees), tastes (Christmas cookies, latkes, hot apple cider) and sounds (gospel choirs, Messiah recitals, Klezmer bands). You can also follow the Buddhist and Hindu tradition of meditation, which is one of the best ways to relax. Allow your mind to be in the moment by focusing all of your senses so you can soak in the beauty of the season.
Cut Down On Caffeine
Did you know that caffeine accentuates the stress response? It increases the heart rate, blood pressure and ultimately makes it difficult to relax, which is what we need to do when we are stressed. You might think you need that chemical jolt to get you through your "to-do" list, but instead of reaching for that extra cup of Joe or can of jitter juice, choose hot apple cider, herbal teas or a decaffeinated version of your favorite warm beverage. In fact, why not take an hour or two away from your hectic schedule to take a real English-style tea break, complete with finger sandwiches and chat-time with your friends.
Get in the Spirit
Even if you hate the holidays, let go of your inner Scrooge and go with the flow. Listen to inspiring music and sing joyful songs that can uplift your brain as well as your spirits. Put on your favorite tunes, sing out loud in your car on your way to work, or go caroling with friends and family.
Commune with Nature
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which causes depression due to a lack of sunlight during the winter months, can be relieved by spending time outside during the day. Go ice skating, sledding, skiing or simply take a hike in the woods. The relaxing atmosphere of nature gives your prefrontal cortex -- the area of our brain that helps you focus -- an opportunity to recharge.
End the Party at Midnight
Keeping a more regular schedule during the holidays will help you feel more relaxed and happier. Our brain performs best when we go to bed and wake up at the same time. When we disrupt this rhythm, our hormones become out of sync and we experience the equivalent of jet lag. So, with the exception of New Year's Eve, do your brain a favor and don't pull too many all-nighters.
Volunteer for a Charity
It's easy to become depressed during the holidays, so focusing on others will ultimately make you feel less stressed about your own situation. There's nothing more gratifying and uplifting than doing something for someone who is less fortunate. Volunteer at a local shelter or food pantry. Studies show that people who do humanitarian work have greater sense of well-being, happiness, health and longevity.
Have a beautiful-brain holiday!