Holiday Stress and Your Brain
Stress-Free Holiday

Holiday Stress and Your Brain

Holidays are the happiest season of all, according to a classic Christmas song, but the holidays can also be one of the most stressful seasons.

If you experience holiday stress, you are not alone. In a 2015 survey by Healthline, 62 percent of respondents said that their stress was "very or somewhat" high during the holiday season. Only 10 percent said they breezed through the holidays without any stress. Those reporting stress listed finances, maintaining healthy eating and exercise routines, choosing the right gifts and scheduling as the top seasonal stressors.

Holiday stress is exhausting, but it can also affect your brain. When you experience stress symptoms, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol. In short bursts and in small amounts, cortisol is harmless, as it is your body’s natural fight-or-flight hormone. Chronic stress and the high level of cortisol it causes, on the other hand, create long-term changes in your brain that can even affect your mental wellness.

The good news is that researchers have also found evidence of a "Christmas spirit network" in the brains of people who embrace the holiday. A team of scientists enrolled 10 healthy people who routinely celebrated the holiday and 10 healthy people who did not have Christmas traditions. The researchers then performed functional MRI (fMRI) scans on the participants while showing them images with a Christmas theme.

The results of the imaging studies showed that holiday images caused activation in the brains of the pro-Christmas crowd. The images showed that these areas of the brain did not light up when the non-Christmas group looked at the images. The areas of the brain that lit up on fMRI are associated with spirituality, recognition of facial emotion, and the senses of touch, position and movement.

Give Your Brain the Gift of a Stress-free Holiday

To ignite the warm and fuzzy holiday areas within your brain, though, you have to take out the stresses that can snuff your holiday spirit. Here are a few tips experts suggest for taking the stress out of the seasons:

  • Adjust your expectations
  • Keep a checklist on your phone
  • Order gifts online to avoid the crowds
  • Give gift cards
  • Simply holiday recipes
  • Add more spice to your recipes, especially if a guest who has a diminished sense of taste due to a neurological condition
  • Use a ride-hailing app
  • Pace yourself
  • Carry your medications with you to avoid missed or delayed doses
  • Schedule a support group meeting
  • Say thank you – showing gratitude can kindle the holiday spirit and reduce your stress this holiday season