The holiday season and all it brings is a joyous and festive time of year – it's also one of the most stressful. The holidays typically demand more of your time and finances as you shop, cook, clean, entertain, and attend gatherings.

Add the stressors of the holidays to pressures at work and responsibilities on the home front – in the middle of a pandemic – and, well, you might find yourself feeling especially anxious this year.

Even in non-pandemic times, stress can easily derail holiday cheer. Having a strategy to calm down in the moment can make all the difference. When pressure starts to build, experiment with the following tactics to manage your anxious feelings.

The First Step: Recognize How Your Mind and Body React When You Feel Anxious 

Anxious feelings are a reaction designed to protect you from a threat. At times, it can make you more alert and focused. But when you're anxious, decisions are often limited to "fight or flight" reactions, which impact your ability to respond and function.1,2 

The fight or flight response refers to involuntary physiological changes that happen in the body and mind when you feel threatened. This response exists to keep you safe and prepare you to face or escape danger. In a situation that is dangerous, it can save your life. However, if you experience it too frequently due to stress or anxiety, it can take a toll on your health and happiness.1,2

Many individuals don't recognize the effects of anxious feelings on the body or mind. Common signs and symptoms include:3,4

  1. An increased heart rate
  2. Breathing rapidly
  3. Feeling restless, nervous, or tense
  4. A sense of impending danger, panic, or doom
  5. Sweating
  6. Trembling
  7. Feeling weak or tired
  8. Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
  9. Trouble sleeping
  10. Experiencing gastrointestinal problems
  11. Difficulty controlling worry

The Second Step: Have a Plan to Calm Down in The Moment

After you've identified your reactions, then you can take steps to soothe your body and mind to counteract the anxious response. It's not easy to find calm in the middle of chaos and when you're stressed. It takes practice, and finding strategies that work can take time. Experiment with the following research-backed tactics when pressure mounts or you begin to feel anxious.

Breathe from Your Belly. When stressed, it's common to take quick and shallow breaths from the chest instead of the belly. Taking deep, slow breaths using your diaphragm helps calm your body and mind.

Studies on the physiological effects of deep, slow breathing show significant positive effects on the respiratory, cardiovascular, and autonomic nervous systems. This leads to decreases in heart rate and blood pressure, improved digestion, improved sleep cycles, enhanced anti-inflammatory effects, improved mood, and muscle relaxation.5,6 One study showed that slow abdominal breathing stopped the fight or flight response in highly stressed college students.7

Here’s a simple deep breathing exercise:

  1. Place one hand on the upper chest and the other on the belly just beneath the rib cage.
  2. To inhale, slowly breathe in through the nose, drawing the breath down toward the stomach. The stomach should fill like a balloon and push your hand upward, while the hand on your chest remains still.
  3. To exhale, tighten the abdominal muscles and let the stomach fall downward while breathing through your mouth. Again, the chest should remain still.
  4. Repeat for a few cycles. To obtain even more benefits, practice deep breathing for several minutes each day.

You might choose to breathe in through your nose to a count of four, then exhale through your mouth for the same count or longer. There are many breathing practices that slow down breathing and utilize the diaphragm. Any application of diaphragmatic breathing helps calm your body's stress response.5-7

Move Your Body. Exercise can lower anxiety in the moment, and any kind of movement will help. Walking, doing deep knee bends, jumping jacks, pushups, sit-ups, skipping, or any movement that's comfortable can flush stress-induced chemicals out of your body.8-10 

In the long term, exercise has a positive impact on mood. A single exercise session that gets your heart rate up can lower anxiety, lower blood pressure, improve sleep, and improve insulin sensitivity on the day you do it. Other benefits, like lowering your risk of many chronic diseases and cancers, start adding up within days or weeks of regular physical activity.10

Turn Up the Music. Research shows that even a short session of focusing on calming music can lower stress and improve your mood. Build yourself a “calm” playlist. Then, when anxiousness rears its head, try five minutes of sitting still or walking while listening.8,11

Remind Yourself This Is Temporary. Fighting or denying the way you feel when you're anxious can create more anxious feelings. Instead, acknowledge your feelings and try to witness them without judgment. Then remind yourself these feelings won't last forever. Knowing your symptoms when you feel anxious can make them less threatening. Plus, being aware of your reactions will help you remember that you've managed feeling this way in the past – and you can do it again.9,12

Be Self-Compassionate. One way of dealing with anxieties is being compassionate toward yourself rather than critical. It's common to feel frustrated and resort to negative self-talk if you struggle to manage your anxious feelings. But a negative inner voice will only make you feel worse. The next time your inner critic starts talking, flip the script.

For example, if you go to a party and beat yourself up for not talking to anyone or your inner voice says, "What is wrong with you? No one else at the party had a problem having conversations with other people!" Recognize this voice as the inner critic and counteract it with a more compassionate voice. Try something like, "It was hard to go to the party. I'm proud of you for going. You tried, and that's what counts." Be compassionate and be your own best friend. Tell yourself something that you wish someone would say to you in that moment.9,12

Remember, the holidays don't have to be perfect or just like the ones from your past. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that we are resilient and flexible.

Stress won't disappear from your life and managing anxious feelings that go along with it is ongoing. But by paying attention to your stress reactions and practicing ways to calm your feelings, you can feel better and increase your ability to cope with challenges through the holidays and beyond.

A Word from Thorne

Nutritional supplements can help take the edge off your holiday stress.* Unsure which nutritional supplement might be right for you? Try taking this short quiz. If you’re interested in how your body responds to stress, then you can take Thorne’s simple, at-home Stress Test that measures the levels of the adrenal hormones – cortisol and DHEA – in your saliva.


References

  1. Garland EL, Fredrickson B, Kring AM, et al. Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: insights from the broaden-and-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and deficits in psychopathology. Clin Psychol Rev 2010;30(7):849-864.  
  2. Kozlowska K, Walker P, McLean L, Carrive P. Fear and the defense cascade: clinical implications and management. Harv Rev Psychiatry 2015;23(4):263-287.
  3. Anxiety disorders. Mayo Clinic.https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/symptoms-causes/syc-20350961. [Accessed Nov. 10, 2021]
  4. Generalized anxiety disorder. Anxiety & Depression Association of America. https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad/symptoms. [Accessed Nov. 10, 2021]
  5. Wang SZ, Li S, Xu XY, et al. Effect of slow abdominal breathing combined with biofeedback on blood pressure and heart rate variability in prehypertension. J Altern Complement Med 2010;16(10):1039-1045. 
  6. Russo MA, Santarelli DM, O'Rourke D. The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe (Sheff). 2017;13(4):298-309.
  7. Chen S, Sun P, Wang S, et al. Effects of heart rate variability biofeedback on cardiovascular responses and autonomic sympathovagal modulation following stressor tasks in prehypertensives. J Hum Hypertens 2016;30(2):105-111. 
  8. Irwin SA, Hirst JM. Overview of anxiety in palliative care. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. [Accessed Nov. 9, 2021]
  9. Tips to manage anxiety and stress. Anxiety & Depression Association of America. https://adaa.org/tip. [Accessed Nov. 10, 2021]
  10. Physical activity guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://health.gov/paguidelines/second-edition/pdf/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf. [Accessed Nov. 9, 2021]
  11. Fernando GVMC, Wanigabadu LU, Vidanagama B, et al. Adjunctive effects of a short session of music on pain, low-mood and anxiety modulation among cancer patients – a randomized crossover clinical trial. Indian J Palliat Care 2019;25(3):367-373.
  12. Craske M. Generalized anxiety disorder in adults: cognitive-behavioral therapy and other psychotherapies. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. [Accessed Nov. 9, 2021]