By Curtis Thill, M.D.
The healing purr of a beloved cat. Unconditional joy from a dog greeting you. Feeling connected after a brisk walk. A warm hug from a grandparent.
These all hold the power to elevate one’s mood, especially during times of heightened holiday hustle and bustle.
As the song goes, for many of us, “it’s the happiest time of the year” when Christmas and other holidays roll around. For a lot of people, December is a time of great anticipation. But at the same time, quite a few people experience heightened stress, anxiety, even depression during the December holidays.
As a long-time physician, I recognize that stress often appears in life. But it’s important to make some distinctions. During the holidays there is “good” stress from the joy and excitement of assembling families, opening presents, and enjoying meals together. And there is the other side of holiday stress, where we can sometimes get overwhelmed by last-minute shopping, cooking, and cleaning.
The good news is that there exist many ways to reduce stress and truly enjoy the “merry and bright” side of the holiday season.
Try moderate exercise. Make time to take simple long walks or include a light workout two-three times a week. If it works for you, try some mild aerobic exercise for 20 minutes or so. The benefits can be amazing. Exercise can improve focus and memory. The process can elevate mood as your brain produces anxiety- and depression-relieving neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. Here’s a key point: kids thrive with physical activity – keeping them active is good for their overall mental health.
Give yourself some space. The rush of buying gifts, preparing food, cleaning the house, writing the holiday cards, and more can all add up to a stress headache. If we inadvertently pile up our days with more tasks than can be handled, we may be setting ourselves up for unpleasant symptoms of stress. If you find yourself overwhelmed, give yourself permission to dial it back a bit. And don’t forget to allow yourself quality sleep by not staying up late to wrap presents or perform other extra work.
Try some mindfulness exercises. Mindfulness involves taking a bit of time to meditate and bring ourselves back to focusing on being present in the moment (instead of worrying about the future). Taking five-to-ten minutes to relax, breathe, and meditate can reset and center us mentally and emotionally, putting stressful emotions to rest. It’s not hard. There are many resources to help here, including several short videos at https://www.youtube.com/@sichc_healthcare There are also many online apps like Headspace, Breathe, and Insight Timer that you can explore for personal relevance.
There’s no problem with asking for help. Sometimes unresolved stress and emotional turmoil can lead to chronic issues. Don’t let any baseless concern over stigma, fear, or shame stop you from getting the help you need from your trusted medical provider. Sound mental health is a major part of good physical health.
And remember, if you like cats, try some extra pets. The purring cat will like it and you can reap the benefit of lower blood pressure, stress relief, and muscle relaxation.
Tis the season to make memories, so take care of yourself and make some good ones!
A board-certified family physician, Dr. Curtis Thill has practiced medicine in the Crawford County region for more than 30 years. Visit sichc.org for more information.