Get ready, here it comes! Thanksgiving. Christmas. Hanukkah. New Year's. The most wonderful time of the year. Crowds of people everywhere. Traffic jams. Buying gifts and overspending. Traveling delays. Relatives. Argghh!
While the death of a spouse is the greatest cause of stress, troubles with in-laws, family gatherings, vacation and Christmas are rated in the top 100 contributors to stress.
More than 40 million people in the United States will experience some impairment because of an anxiety condition this year. More than $300 billion is spent annually on stress-related compensation claims, reduced productivity, absenteeism, health insurance costs, direct medical expenses and employee turnover. Stress-related diseases include headaches, sleep problems, peptic ulcers, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety attacks, heart disease, chronic fatigue, mood swings, psychological distress, disordered eating behaviors, poor immune function and chronic pain.
Stress, however, is a natural condition in our environment. It greets us at every turn in our life. Infants cry as soon as they leave the womb. Very dependent beings, they seek their needs by crying and tune out the chaos of their surroundings by sleeping.
Adolescents experience stress as they begin their search for identity and independence. When approaching young adulthood, searching for acceptance and individuality, career-planning and facing marriage are viewed as stressful.
Adults take on new responsibilities, raising children and future planning while often caring for their own parents.
The stressors of retirees include self-evaluation about what they have accomplished in their life, reduction of income, loss of social relationships, loss of independence while adjusting to a new dependence upon others and acceptance of death.
Some level of stress is necessary to energize us and internally motivate us to reach our potential. But stress can also be detrimental to our health. Stress from external events such as a poor economy and rising oil prices can be unconstructive. It is often triggered by minor hassles, such as traffic, or major hassles, including job loss or divorce.
Stress can come from actual threats such as illness, injury, theft or vandalism or imaginary threats, including fear of getting cancer, Alzheimer's disease or premature death. Many of these are perpetuated from worry that comes from within. They may or may not come to pass. Regardless of its origin, these are events or circumstances that we perceive through our own evaluation as being stressful.
But is stress really the problem? While stress can be a major contributing factor, it's not the stress per se but rather our response to the stress that leads to illness. It's actually very personal. How we choose to address these demands or fears is key.
This holiday season, when you encounter a potentially stressful situation, attack it head-on so it doesn't beat you up. Don't let it own you, but at the same time, maintain interest. Avoidance or withdrawal such as drinking, overeating or burying yourself with busyness can be harmful. They become the perfect place to hide from ourselves. Additionally, alcohol and stimulants (such as caffeine or energy drinks) can magnify an otherwise trivial situation.
Eliminate controllable hassles. Although you don't want to isolate yourself, don't be afraid to say "no." Remember there are 364 other days, so you can take a rain check. When attending annual gatherings with relatives, communicate openly and listen to others. Accept differences in how people are wired. Be forgiving, pick your battles and let some things roll off your shoulders. Cultivate new relationships. Spend time with the children. Or try something new altogether. Volunteer at a local charity to serve a meal or visit an in-care resident.
Finally, try a healthy, active approach to your holidays this year. While enjoying the holiday goodies, add at least one extra piece of fruit and one extra vegetable to your diet each day. Take some time to relax. Incorporate at least one five-minute daily walk no matter where you are. Take a grandchild for a stroll to perhaps visit a youthful perspective or share some wisdom. Offer to walk the dog (even if it isn't yours). After all, a walk outside is the perfect place to go when you're all "stressed up."
Anne R. Lindsay is an assistant professor and exercise physiologist at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She conducts research and programming in adult fitness, physical activity, body image and childhood obesity prevention. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.