Regence medical director Dr. Amy Khan shares tips to reduce holiday stress

December 05, 2019
Dr. Amy Kahn of Regence
By Regence

We’re used to thinking about prevention in terms of averting illness like the flu, cancer or heart disease by getting a flu shot, following a healthy diet, or controlling blood pressure. But what about guarding against undue stress, anxiety or even depression during the holiday season? 

Dr. Amy Khan is an internal medicine physician and executive medical director at Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Utah and Regence BlueShield of Idaho. During the holiday season, she shares her expertise about proactively managing stress and taking care of your health.

Why does the holiday season increase stress levels?

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The holidays mean heartwarming gatherings with family and friends, enjoying holiday traditions, and giving gifts to loved ones. So many exciting things to anticipate and uplift our spirit – and add stress.

With lots of fun to be had and so much to do in a short time period, it is not surprising that our sleep suffers. When we indulge more than usual in rich foods, sweets and alcoholic beverages, we further strain our bodies.

Other factors can also get us off balance during the holidays. We may put pressure on ourselves to find the perfect gift, create the right décor, or prepare that special meal. Often, we take on the burden of making sure everyone gets along or has a good time.

Let’s not forget the guilt associated with shopping trips that max out credit cards or feeling that we are not living up to expectations set by ourselves or others. Many of us anxiously anticipate dealing with judgmental relatives, dysfunctional relationships, or heated discussions at family gatherings.

The additional demands on our time and energy combined with seasonal worries can threaten health. Our skill in managing stress is directly related to how well we attend to the physical, emotional, social and spiritual aspects of our self. This is true any time of the year, but especially during the holidays.

How does stress sometimes turn into anxiety and depression?

“Good” stress comes when we get excited about something or successfully navigate events in our lives. Challenges can make us feel more alive and engaged as well as improve our productivity and performance. However, when holiday to-do lists and multiple pressures layer on top of the demands of daily life, stress can feel overwhelming. This scenario tips our balance.

The holidays can also emphasize feelings of isolation and loneliness or troubling emotions like anger or despair. For people who have lost a loved one or their job, home, or function due to a life-altering illness, holiday merriment can feel like salt on a wound.

What steps can you take to stay on track through the holidays?

Remember Ben Franklin’s adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” If we wait until we’re underwater, that’s when we are more likely to self-medicate with substances, relapse, or experience panic attacks, depression or suicidal thoughts.

So, make an active plan to guard against being overwhelmed. List the specific things you will do to maintain your balance of mental and physical health. Consider how you’ll manage any issues that may show up over the holidays. Redefine the narrative and make the holidays what you want them to be.

Here are some tips for attending to your whole self during the holidays:

  • Set reasonable expectations. You don’t have to do EVERYTHING! Give yourself a break – or two.
  • Plan for your needs. Stock up on healthy foods and refill prescriptions before running out.
  • Pace yourself.  Make a schedule, include some gaps, and stay hydrated.
  • Define your tension-breaking options. Call a friend, turn on some music, or watch a funny film.
  • Be more intentional (follow your plan). Avoid overindulging on food and alcohol or using substances to numb troubling emotions.
  • Practice your spirituality. Stay connected to whatever calms and replenishes you.
  • Shop smart. Aim for less-busy times and call to ask whether the item you’re seeking is available.
  • Embrace your budget. Consider invaluable gifts of time spent with family members and friends, like sharing a meal or thoughtful services like delivering a home-cooked meal.   
  • Recharge your batteries. Schedule times to just unplug, get off your feet, and close your eyes.

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