The holidays are a magic time filled with Love Actually and Home Alone playing on repeat on television, with delicious food and the scent of pine needles and cinnamon sticks in the air. They also can be incredibly stressful: racing through the airport and eyeing Sir Sneez-a-lot next to you; dealing with your second aunt twice-removed’s detailed questions about why in the world you’re choosing to raise your children that way (if you have them) or why in the world you haven’t yet chosen to reproduce (if you don’t). It’s a time for political clashes, for cooking snafus, for children having screaming breakdowns and passive aggressive comments about in-laws. But here’s the thing: it can still be fun. It can still be magical, even. Whatever you’re doing this holiday season, here are a few of my favorite tricks for dealing with stress this season:
1. Supplement with magnesium. I’ve sung magnesium’s praises before, and the holidays is the perfect time to sing them again. 90% of people are deficient in magnesium, which is known as the relaxation mineral – it relaxes everything from your muscles to your bowels to your brain, making it a wonderful way to deal with everything from post-flight constipation to stress-induced insomnia to sore muscles from hauling bags/babies/turkey around. I love to drink it in hot water as a tea, and use it as a relaxing, winding down ritual at the end of every night. This is my favorite brand, and it’s available at any natural health store, Whole Foods, or online.
2. Try 4-7-8 breathing. When you’re stressed, our breath gets quicker and shorter without you even realizing it. This quickened, shortened breath tells your body that you’re stressed, turning on a fight-or-flight mode that leads to shorter, quicker breaths, viciously cycling into a downward cycle of stress or even panic attacks. This 4-7-8 breathing trick was introducing to me by my father, a licensed psychologist who uses it in his therapy practice for stress-relief. Many therapists are now recommending this as a go-to for both chronic and acute stress, because it’s incredibly simple and incredibly effect. Simply breathe in through your nose for a count of 4, hold your breath while you count to 7, and exhale through your mouth for 8 counts. Repeat 5 – 10x, or until you feel noticeably calmer (it happens shockingly quickly!). This trick sends a powerful bodily message to calm the nervous system. I also use it on nights I can’t fall asleep – often, I’m out before I get through three full cycles.
3. Sniff lavender. Scents can have a powerful effect on mood, and lavender is one of my absolute favorites for stress. I’ll often carry a little vial in my purse. When I’m heading into a situation I know will be stressful (or if I find myself smack dab in the middle of one), I dab a bit on my wrists and inhale deeply, basking in the immediate relaxing effect. I also love to dilute a bit in a small spray bottle full of water, and spray it on my eye mask and scarf to relax when I fly, and on my pillow at my hotel room or room at my family’s house for a dreamy descent into sleep.
4. Smile! This is one of my favorite tricks: did you know that when you smile, even if it’s completely forced, you actually become happier? It’s a sort of Pavlovian trick, where your body is so used to associating a smile with feelings of happiness that when it perceives a smile, it generates feelings of happiness. Plus, often when you smile you’re smiling at someone – your family, a stranger on the street, yourself in the mirror – and this can cause a powerful chain reaction.
5. Drink tea. There are a number of teas that have wonderfully relaxing benefits – my personal favorites are Tulsi Sweet Rose, chamomile, and Yogi Tea’s Honey Lavender Stress Relief. Really, though, it’s the ritual of tea I like, and you can experience that with your any kind. Just take a moment to sit in a big comfy chair with the warm mug in your hands, breathing in its warm steam and sipping its comforting warmth.
6. Be grateful. I know it’s cheesy, but taking the time to appreciate what I have always helps me deal with the inevitable stress that accompanies it. I used to try to write down three things I was grateful for every evening before falling asleep, but I found the barriers to action annoying enough (where was my pad of paper? Did I have a pen? I’m awfully tired tonight…) that I often ended up skipping it altogether. Now, I just try to tell my fiance two to three things I’m grateful for most nights, and he does the same. We end up remembering three or four nights a week, and it feels less like a chore than an opportunity to bask in the little things we love – but so often forget to appreciate – about our lives. We go to sleep feeling warm and fuzzy and generally much happier and less stressed.
7. Enjoy yourself. While I’m all about health here on Sprouted Routes, let’s be frank: you’re likely going to overindulge this holiday season. There will be cookies in the work kitchen, drinks at holiday parties, cute little canapes with tiny decorative cranberries that are too delicious to resist. And that’s okay. There’s nothing worse than following the negligibly bad move of eating too much or too decadently with the definitively bad move of beating yourself up about it. When you can, look into healthierswaps for your favorite foods, and when you can’t – eat the damn pie. Put gravy on your mashed potatoes. Drink a glass of eggnog. And when you do? Close your eyes and enjoy it. Savor the texture, the flavor, the smell. And funny thing – the more you truly take note of what you’re eating and enjoy it, the less likely you are to overindulge. Win win.
8. Do “legs up the wall.” This is one of my absolute favorite yoga poses for stress relief – it feels like a sigh of relief for my body – especially when I’m having any back pain and my mind. It’s also the easiest, most beginner friendly move ever – simply walk over to a wall and lay down. Scootch your butt against the wall and swing your legs up so they rest against it. Close your eyes. Breathe. This pose gives you all the benefits of the fancy, crazy inversions like handstands with next to no effort – and it’s incredibly soothing to your nervous system. I often just do it in bed, resting my butt on my pillow and swinging my legs up the wall for 5 – 10 minutes before swinging back around and falling asleep.
9. Load up on probiotics. More and more research is evidencing the gut/brain connection, and just how much of your mental health begins in your belly. Probiotics are awesome all year round, but especially important during the holidays as they’re potent immune boosters, helping stave off any of the colds and flus so often picked up while traveling; they help soothe stomachs and digest food better (see: Thanksgiving dinner. Christmas dinner. Hanukkah dinner. Everything you put in your mouth between November and February); and they help manage stress and anxiety. I like to take a supplement containing mood-specific strains, but I also make sure to get a certain amount of probiotics from fermented foods, like kimchi and sauerkraut, and fermented drinks like kombucha and water kefir.
10. Take a walk. Getting outside, getting your heartrate up, getting some fresh air and – let’s be real – getting away from your family for a few minutes can offer huge benefits. I try to fit in a small walk every day. Ten minutes is a promise I can keep to myself, and just stepping outside is so much easier than fighting for enough time to go to the gym, or a quiet enough room to sneak in a home yoga practice (although those are both great too, obviously). Bonus points if you can do it while it’s still light out, and soak up some Vitamin D and beautiful fall foliage. You’ll be amazed how much regenerative power something so small can have.
What are your best tips for beating holiday stress? Let me know in the comments! Have a happy, safe, wonderful Thanksgiving (and if you haven’t yet entered to win my holiday present to you – a brand new Vitamix – click here for all of the details. I’ll be picking a winner next week!).