With so much pressure this holiday season with presents to buy and gatherings to attend, we take a closer look at stress and how we can combat it during this busy month.
Most textbooks describe stress as a feeling that results from a negative occurrence or situation; however, stress can be caused from a positive life events as well. The body does not distinguish between good or bad stress — it simply reacts to the circumstance placed on our bodies. There are actually four stages of stress, and they tie closely with our expectations toward the end of the year. Understanding these four stages and knowing what the body experiences with each stage will help us to cope with stress.
Stage 1: The Stressor (The Event or Situation)
Again, the stressor results from a situation or event that can be either positive or negative. There are countless events around the holidays that put some stress on the body, whether it be positive or negative, including family gatherings, office parties, trips to the mall, or even baking treats!
Stage 2: The Brain’s Response
When you are exposed to outside stresses, your brain releases a corticotropin-releasing hormone. This hormone travels through the blood vessels to the pituitary gland (located underneath the brain), causing it to produce another hormone, adrenocorticotropic. Adrenocorticotropic stimulates cells in the adrenal gland (located on top of the kidneys), which releases a third hormone called cortisol. The adrenaline-like nerves begin pumping adrenaline. The combination of these hormones and chemicals causes you to feel stressed through a variety of symptoms, such as your heart beating faster, increased perspiration and anxiety, focused attention and a stimulation of our fight-or-flight response.
Stage 3: Perception
The key to coping with stress is perception. Perception actually occurs after the stressor but before the brain’s physiological stress response is activated. The brain must first perceive the event before you could react to it. If you do not perceive the situation as stressful, your response will not activate. This is why people react to stress differently, even during times as joyous as the holidays. Although we do not have the ability to foresee or control these kinds of events, we do have the ability to recognize stressors and react accordingly.
Stage 4: Duration
Our physiological stress responses are actually good, at least on a short-term basis. We need these responses to give us energy to fight or flee, or to get us out of danger. However, if the stress continues for a long period of time, it will eventually take its toll. Thankfully, the stresses of the holiday season are temporary. But if you are under constant stress, the cortisol hormone will weaken the immune system, making it difficult for your body to fight infection. Chronic stress is associated with emotional changes, such as depression, anxiety, overeating and difficulty sleeping, as well as increased risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and depression. These problems can be exacerbated by a holiday diet, which leans heavily on sugar.
Coping is the key to managing stress. Managing stress boils down to taking charge of your thoughts, your emotions, your schedule and your environment, and the way you deal with problems. The ability to hold up under pressure and face challenges head on. For this holiday season, start by setting a firm schedule so that you can plan out each event and mentally prepare for the possible stressors that might be faced.
And thanks to years of research, we know that exercise helps to reduce the side effects of stress. It provides a distraction from stressful situations, as well as a way to release anxiety. Fitness professionals are part of an important network of social support, so in addition to spending time with friends and family this holiday season, carve out some quality time with your fellow instructors as well!
Here are some unhealthy ways of coping with stress. Be sure to look out for these over the next couple of weeks:
- Substance addiction, like smoking, alcohol or consuming too much sugar
- On the other end of the spectrum, not eating enough is another ineffective way of coping with stress.
- Withdrawing from friends and family. Sociability is key to maintaining our mental health.
- Procrastination: Again, when we put things off, we are not mentally prepared for handling potentially stressful events.
We have also devised four ways to manage stress, which we’ve dubbed the Four “As”:
- Avoid the stressor
- Alter the stressor
- Adapt to the stressor
- Accept the stressor
While we have the means of improving our mental health, we must also strengthen our physical health to combat the effects of stress:
- Exercise regularly
- Eat a healthy diet
- Reduce caffeine and sugar
- Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and drugs
- Get plenty of sleep
We hope that, in addition to managing the stress of the holiday season, that you make it your New Year’s resolution to put these stress-reducing tips into practice in 2018. All of us at Mad Dogg Athletics wish you a happy and healthy holiday season!