Dec. 20, 2010— -- The winter holidays are full of festive decorations, gatherings with loved ones and plenty of home-cooked food and drinks.
They are also filled with stress, and experts say that stress can be counterproductive and harmful to one's health, even if it is just for a few weeks.
"When we're stressed, our adrenal glands release hormones, especially adrenaline and cortisol,as part of the normal 'fight-or-flight' response," said Dr. Philip Ragno, president of Island Cardiac Specialists in Garden City, N.Y. and director of cardiovascular health and wellness at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y. "With an increase in adrenaline, our heart rate and blood pressure go up in order to deliver more blood to our muscles and the release of cortisol heightens our immune system and increases our blood glucose levels."
These are all a healthy part of the body's response to stress, but over time, chronic stress can really take a toll on the heart.
"Constant stress can cause cortisol to become chronically elevated, with levels up to 10 times higher than our normal baseline. Persistent elevation of cortisol levels can lead to increased levels of bad cholesterol, decreased levels of good cholesterol and elevated blood sugar levels. These changes result in the development of excess abdominal fat and diabetes, as well as reducing our immune response," said Ragno.
No matter how much people know it's coming and try to avoid it, holiday stress happens every year.
"People are surprised by their own reactions to the holidays, yet they're very familiar," said Simon Rego, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
The triggers are the same every year: too much shopping and preparation to do, end-of-year job responsibilties, crowds and family gatherings are among them.
One reason why stress is so recurrent during the holidays is that people fall into the same patterns year after year, such as waiting too long to shop.
"People don't change their behavioral patterns," said Rego. "A lot can be reduced if people would recognize ahead of time what their vulnerabilities are and plan accordingly and act differently."
"Be more organized and don't do everything at the last minute," said Ragno. "Also, get support from other people. They can help take pressure and demands off."
People also tend to place very high expectations on themselves in terms of what gifts to buy, how big a party to throw or how many family members to see.
"People need to try to minimize the damage and just expect what's reasonable," said Dr. Charles Raison, associate professor of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. That means, he said, learning how to decline invitations and be firm about placing limits on gifts.
A lot of holiday stress can also be brought on by depression, which can either be strictly seasonal or can be a year-long depression that the holidays can exacerbate because one is lonely or forced to endure unpleasant family gatherings.
"People need to try to identify what's bothering them and how to make the holidays less of a burden," said Raison. "If people are lonely, they should keep busy and take advantage of social resources. If they don't want to be around family members, they should either try and tolerate it or cut themselves a break and don't go."
Avoiding Holiday Meltdowns
While experts don't think acute holiday stress will necessarily cause any serious health consequences, over the long term, stress can start to have a negative effect on the heart. And it can really make what should be a joyful time of year pretty miserable.
"If you don't learn to control your stress, you can alienate relatives and create unpleasantness in relationships with people you love," said Dr. Redford Williams, director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.
In order to ease their holiday stress, experts advise people to really make time to relax, take a few deep breaths and put things into perspective.
"Just stopping and reflecting for a few minutes will help to lower adrenaline and cortisol levels," said Ragno.
"Take a few minutes when you can to relax and appreciate what the holidays are about," said Rego. "Watch the joy in children's faces, watch an old movie or listen to a holiday song."
"The world's not going to end if something doesn't get done," said Williams.
People should also eat well and make time to exercise, since overindulging and putting off workouts until it's time for New Year's resolutions are common.
To prevent an unwanted meltdown, experts say there are some signs to watch out for that you may be about to have one.
"If you're not able to sleep, if you find yourself waking up at 4 a.m. because you can't sleep, if you find yourself drinking too much and behaving in ways that really aren't like you, you should really take a step back and say that things are getting out of hand," said Williams.
The holidays are supposed to be about kindness and generosity, and people most often neglect to extend these courtesies to those who need them most -- themselves.
"You should treat yourself kindly and unburden yourself for the holidays," said Williams.