The holiday season is upon us, and it is almost inevitable that the to-do list lengthens and social calendar expands leaving a host of errands to run, gifts to buy and friends and family to please. These obligations often leave you feeling a bit overwhelmed if not the polar opposite of “merry.”
Not only is stress unpleasant, but research suggests that chronic and even seasonal stress can take a toll on your immune system, leaving you more susceptible to everything from viral infections and the common cold to much more serious diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
In fact, stress relief is becoming increasingly integrated in some methods of cancer treatment and prevention. FACT, the Foundation for the Advancement of Cancer Therapy suggests stress management as part of “whole body focused biological repair.” Rather than just eradicating the malignant cells, the FACT approach aims to rebalance the body’s chemistry, healing the whole person with a customized program of diet, detoxification and stress management.
Here are some things you can do to relieve stress and in turn boost your immune system, mood and overall health during the holiday season and all year:
Psychological stress manifests itself physiologically. When you experience anxiety, fear, or anger your body becomes tense, your breath shortens and your blood pressure and heart rate increases.
This mind-body connection was understood thousands of years by Indian sages who created the physical yoga postures or asanas for the opposite effect; they used the physicality of the asanas to calm the mind. Derived from the Sanskrit root “yui,” yoga was created “to unite” the body and mind, teaching us to tune into the intuitive sensations of the body as a way to liberate the mind. By turning your awareness inward, increasing mental focus and concentration, the mind begins to let go of the barrage of negative thought patterns that often inhabit a stressed-out psyche.
In addition to stretching and toning your superficial muscles, yoga massages the body’s internal organs aiding in digestion and the release of toxins while opening the nadis, or energetic pathways that allow prana or life force to flow throughout the body. When you’re stressed or anxious, the nadis contract, restricting the free flow of energy. Yoga practice stimulates the dilation of nadis, increasing the energy flow restoring the body’s vitality and calming the emotions, leaving you more relaxed, peaceful and in a state of inexplicable euphoria.
I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve hit the yoga mat with a broken record of “crazy talk” flowing through by mind, but by the end of a class I am so relaxed that it should be illegal for me to drive a car or operate heavy machinery. I leave class feeling renewed and refreshed, my priorities back safely in place.
Around the holidays it is common to get consumed by projects, obligations and expectations of yourself and others. Yoga can be a great way to return to center, reconnecting with your body and quieting the mind from its unending rap of chores and chatter.
Part of yoga’s universal appeal is that it is accessible to anyone, anywhere—no equipment necessary. Regardless of your fitness level and/or physical limitations, the majority of hatha yoga poses are adaptable to accommodate practically any situation—the variations are as endless as the benefits of the practice (so no excuses!).
Try a class at your gym or find a studio in your area; if you don’t have time for a full class or have certain limitations buy a book or DVD and try a few poses at home.
Yoga is essentially an active form of meditation, but if you want to take it a bit deeper, set aside at least 15 minutes a day to get quiet. The intention here is to silence the mind and focus your attention on your inner awareness—letting go of the incessant sound track of thoughts inhabiting your consciousness the other 945 waking minutes of the day. …I need to pick up my dry cleaning…I hope my boss didn’t take that comment the wrong way…I didn’t workout again today…I shouldn’t have eaten that cupcake…Tomorrow, I’ll workout tomorrow…. and on and on.
According to Psychology Today, neuroscientists have found that meditators shift their brain waves from the stress-prone right frontal cortex to the calmer left frontal cortex. This mental shift decreases the negative effects of stress, mild depression and anxiety and can curtail physical pain. Meditation also reduces activity in the amygdala, the area of the brain that processes fear.
To meditate sit cross-legged, supported by a pillow or in a chair with feet flat on the floor (whichever position enables you to comfortably maintain a straight spine). Dim the lights, close your eyes and breathe easily in and out through your nose. Focus solely on the action of the inhale and exhale. If your thoughts overtake your consciousness, acknowledge them, but let them pass, returning your attention to your breath. Quieting the mind is much more difficult than it sounds, but don’t get discouraged—just return your attention to your breath. It takes practice, but each time you meditate it becomes deeper and more accessible.
Most of the time stress is self-imposed. No, we can’t control of our external situations, but we can control our internal and external reactions to our current situation. At my twelfth birthday party, one of my good friends broke his neck, injuring his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the shoulders down. I will never forget that first night when I visited him in the hospital, a guilt-stricken, sobbing mess; but he was calm, peaceful and at ease and said, “Don’t worry about me…I’m fine. How are you?” At such a young age, bound by a halo in ICU, he completely surrendered to his situation intent on putting the rest of us at ease instead. You may be sick or unemployed, or in a volatile relationship with a partner or family member, but whatever your situation, much of it is dependent on the way you react to it.
The majority of day-to-day stress, anxiety and fear are caused by the mind’s identification with the past or expectation for the future. What about the present? We are often so wrapped up in analyzing the past or consumed with worry about the future that we forget to live in the present moment.
Taking a long deep breath at a moment of intense anxiety or stress brings your attention back to the present moment. The beauty of the present moment is that that is all there is. You only have this moment—ever—which by default means everything must be ok, where you are, as you are…now. So inhale deeply into the belly, and exhale fully, accept the present situation as it is—evaluate the challenging situation as it presents itself in that moment.
Give and Give Thanks.
‘Tis the season of giving, but it is easy to get carried away by our own needs and wants and obligations. Gratitude can bring you back to what’s important. Write a list of the things that you are grateful for: the shoes on your feet, loving family and friends, an understanding co-worker, the bus arriving on time, a sunny day. It will soon become apparent, that your gratitude list is much longer than your to-do list, making it much easier to take your tasks and obligations in stride.
Once we realize just how much we already have, it is so much more meaningful to share and do for others. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, prepare a healthy meal for friends, smile at a stranger—give a little of yourself and your talents this season. Relieving someone else’s stress may just relieve some of your own.
Steve Ross, musician, yogi and author of Happy Yoga says, “You cannot get happy, you can only BE happy,” meaning that happiness is in you—it is your true essence. The tricky part is realizing that for ourselves. Sometimes we look for happiness externally—in other people, places, material possessions and titles hoping they will fulfill us and make us whole.
A few years back, I taught English to a group of elementary students from a rural village in India. The school was in disrepair; the children did not have shoes or proper school supplies, yet their bright smiles, laughter and excitement made me believe they were the happiest kids in the world. They knew life to be no other way and were completely content with what they had.
It is only human to want things: a new car, a promotion, a bigger TV, and it can be great to get these things, but after you get the new 72’ plasma, are you truly happy? You may feel absolutely giddy for a few days or weeks, but soon you will be looking forward to the next thing you’re lusting after. And then the next…
When you stop searching for happiness in external places, material possessions, titles and relationships, you realize that joy is your true essence—it is already within you. Smile. Laugh. Don’t take things so seriously.
During the holidays our day-to-day stress is compounded by familial, social and cultural expectations, making the spat with your mother-in-law or your burnt apple pie seem like too much to handle. Make it a point this holiday season to let go of the trivial things that will not matter next year, next week or even tomorrow. Focus instead on your health and happiness—enjoy time with your family and friends, appreciate what you have and accept who and where you are now..