For some, the holidays can be a time of stress. Family interactions that might not be ideal, traveling, financial pressures, unhealthy food options…. all these things can contribute to feelings over overwhelm and anxiety. That’s why I’ve composed this post about what I do during the holiday season to try to keep relatively sane. I hope they help you too!
- Take adaptogens
Adaptogens are plants that help us adapt to stress. You can read all about them in this piece I wrote for Australian Natural Health magazine. My absolute favourite of all time is holy basil. Holy basil is a delicious-tasting herb you can consume as a tea but you can also take it as a tincture or in capsule form. I do caution however, that anyone who is trying to conceive should not to take holy basil as it can act as a contraceptive (always check with your doctor before taking holy basil if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding). Another adaptogen you can try is ashwagandha (aka Withania somnifera). Ashwagandha has been studied for it’s anti-anxiety, insomnia, and stress-induced depression benefits. Again, you can take this adaptogen in any way: as a tea, a tincture or in capsules.
- Try the amino acid L-theanine
L-theanine is another supplement you can take to help reduce your stress levels. L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea that helps to put your brain into the same wavelengths as monks’ brains when they meditate. It’s been shown in studies to reduce the perception of stress and slightly improve attention. Green tea contains L-theanine, but if you can’t tolerate green tea you can simply take L-theanine in capsule form.
- Get out into nature
Studies have actually shown that just looking at a picture of nature can reduce cortisol levels. Even better however, is to actually get out into nature. An emerging health trend called “forest bathing” has become the focus of some studies recently, with this study concluding that forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments. Forest bathing has also been shown to improve immune function. “Forest bathing” is really just another way of saying “get out into nature” and I know I didn’t need a study to prove to me that being in nature made me feel significantly less stressed. Whenever I can I try to get my family and I out into nature. When we lived in Vancouver my husband and I would get into the mountains or bike ride by the ocean – both the most uplifting, wonderful experiences. And when I lived in Sydney I lived by the beach for a reason: I felt the amazing power of nature on my stress levels. Now, living in Toronto we try to get to trails as much as possible on the weekends. Getting out into nature is a big priority for me and my family. Its free, fun and stress reducing.
- Quit the coffee
I know many of us hate to even consider we might need a break from coffee but truth be told many of us will benefit from a break from caffeine, especially if you’re going through a stressful time. Caffeine will increase your stress hormones adding insult to injury if you’re already stressed . People handle caffeine differently – our genes impact the way we metabolize it – but still, if you’re stressed and your adrenals are taking a beating, lay off the caffeine for a while and you may notice a big improvement to your ability to handle stress, focus, sleep and even to your energy levels.
In our modern world we are simply not getting as much sleep as we need. Televisions, tablets and smartphones are all keeping us up way past our bedtime, which is messing with our hormones and reducing our ability to handle stress. Make it a point to go to bed before 11pm every, single night and do whatever you can do get good quality sleep. I have a resource that you can download here that gives 8 tips for great quality sleep. This point cannot be overstated. If you aren’t sleeping then your adrenals are going to be facing an uphill battle and your stress response will suffer greatly.
My movement of choice is usually yoga. Yoga has a multitude of proven stress-relieving benefits. I also enjoy running and dancing. You have to choose what you enjoy – so you actually do it – but movement is crucial for stress reduction. It doesn’t have to be intense (in fact, intense exercise isn’t always beneficial and is something I often tell my clients to steer clear of). Just 20 minutes walking each day can make a difference. It will also increase your energy levels because exercising increases the amount of ATP (energy stores) we have in our body.
- Keep up a daily meditation practice
I cannot speak highly enough about meditation. I know some might tune out or roll their eyes at this point but you can’t escape the fact that meditation has enormous benefits to our health. Don’t take my word for it; here are a list of scientific references you can check out for yourself:
Creswell, J.D., et al. “Brief mindfulness meditation training alters psychological and neuroendocrine responses to social evaluative stress.” Psychoneuroendocrinology 44 (2014): 1-12.
Colzato, L., Ozturk, A. & Hommel, B. (2012). Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking. Front. Psychology. 3, 116.
Ostafin, B. & Kassman, K. (2012). Stepping out of history: Mindfulness improves insight problem solving. Consciousness and Cognition. 21(2):1031-6.
Tang, Y., Lu, Q., Geng, X., Stein, E. A., Yang, Y., & Posner, M. (2010). Short-term meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 107, 35. 15649-15652.
Levy, D., Wobbrock, J., Kaszniak, A. & Ostergren, M. (2012). The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Multitasking in a High Stress Information Environment. Proceedings of Graphics Interface. 45-52.
Roemer, L. et al. “Mindfulness and acceptance-based behavioral therapies for anxiety disorders.” Current psychiatry reports 15.11 (2013): 1-10.
Barnes, S. et al. “The role of mindfulness in romantic relationship satisfaction and responses to relationship stress.” Journal of marital and family therapy 33.4 (2007):482-500.
And there are many more references beyond these.
I do strongly suggest to all my clients that they keep up a daily meditation habit. Just 10 minutes a day to start is all you need. And it couldn’t be easier: simply close your eyes and concentrate on your breath. Breathe in deeply and out deeply and count each breath (1 as you breathe in, 2 as you breathe out and so on until you get to 10, then return to 1 again. Set an alarm on your phone to tell you once the 10 minutes is up). I also suggest these websites that aid in meditation: Headspace and YogaGlo as well as this yoga nidra (it's not yoga but a deep relaxation guided meditation practice). I promise, not only will this nourish your adrenal glands and hence reduce stress, it will also aid your mental focus and ability to react in a more calm and controlled manner, especially in stressful times. Meditation is where it’s at, whether you like it or not!
Similar to meditation, simple breath work instantly turns on your parasympathetic nervous system, which is your “rest and digest” state (as opposed to your stressed out, “fight or flight” state). The reason I like breathing techniques is because it is most powerful – for me anyway – when it comes to reducing the physical manifestations of stress in my body. For me these physical manifestations occur in my throat area, as a sort of swollen feeling. Many people actually hold their breath when stressed (I'm one of them!), and Ariana Huffington actually wrote about this concept in her book, Thrive. Honestly, breath work is INCREDIBLE – you’ll feel the benefits immediately. It’s so, so powerful (plus super easy to do). Here’s are two of my favourite techniques:
So these are the things that I'll be doing on a regular basis to reduce my stress over the holiday period. Some people are more prone to stress than others (I'm one of them!) but no matter how hard you try, you can't live a healthy life if you are stressed. I tell all my clients that stress reduction has to be a primary focus for them in order to achieve optimal health.
Do you do any stress reduction techniques that aren't on this list? I'd love to hear what they are! Please comment below.
In health and happiness,