Here we go again. It’s that time of year that gave birth to the phrase “I need a vacation from my vacation”.
With the seemingly endless merry-go-round of work parties, family gatherings and social engagements, it’s no wonder nearly 70 per cent of people report a spike in their stress over the holiday season.
But what exactly is stress? How does it affect our thinking? And is there anything we can do to avoid it at this time of year?
It’s all in the head
To understand stress and its impact on the brain, we need to differentiate between emotions and feelings.
Emotions are the physical sensations that course through the body in response to different events. Racing heart, tingling skin, butterflies in the stomach – these are emotions.
Feelings are the mental interpretation of these physical sensations. Passion, embarrassment, pride – these are feelings.
Typically, emotions come first. As we enter into a new situation or event, our body responds by generating unique sensations. Very soon after this, we consciously assess the world around us, interpret what the physical emotions represent, and then select a relevant feeling. Importantly, once we select a mental feeling, this will often trigger the release of unique chemicals into the brain.
For instance, imagine if a spider suddenly fell onto your lap.
The first thing to respond would be your body (dilated pupils, rapid heart rate, quick breathing). Very quickly, you would interpret the event, assign these bodily changes to the spider, and select a relevant feeling.
If you were to select the feeling of fear, this would trigger the release of chemicals into your brain that might focus your attention and mobilise your muscles. If, on the other hand, you were to select the feeling of excitement, this would trigger the release of different chemicals into your brain that might generate laughter.
I mention all this because stress is a feeling, not an emotion.
Stress is a mental interpretation of otherwise benign bodily sensations that can drive the release of specific and potentially harmful chemicals into the brain.
So, just what are these chemicals and what are their impact?
A tale of two chemicals
After selecting the feeling of stress, the first important chemical that’s released is norepinephrine. In the brain, norepinephrine floods into and dampens the function of the prefrontal cortex – a region that allows for calculated, rational and controlled thought.
The second important chemical to be released is cortisol. In the brain, cortisol floods into and begins damaging cells within the hippocampus – this is a region that allows for the formation of new memories.
Imagine a snarling bear comes running towards you right now – you wouldn’t want to waste precious mental energy pondering this article, you’d rather become focused on and reactive to the bear.
In other words, you would want to shut-off deep, calculated thinking – which is exactly what norepinephrine does in the prefrontal cortex.
Also, in order to be better prepared for any ‘bear-type’ events in the future, it’s important to form a deep memory of this event. Much like tearing a muscle to make it stronger, the damage caused by cortisol during stress leads to the release of proteins which bolster and strengthen the hippocampus. This is why we typically have such vivid and lasting memories of stressful events.
Unfortunately, when stress becomes prolonged, other issues begin to arise.
The longer cortisol remains in the brain, the more damage occurs. After enough time, cortisol can begin to kill cells within the hippocampus making it incredibly difficult to form new memories or access old ones.
This is why particularly stressful times, like a nerve-wracking family holiday, may seem like a blur or difficult to piece together in your mind.
Similarly, the longer norepinephrine stays within the prefrontal cortex, the more reactionary an individual can become. If you sometimes find yourself irrational, hyper-sensitive or feeling out-of-control during the holidays, it’s likely the result of a prolonged stress response.
So, now that we know what’s happening, is there anything we can do to combat the stress response?
Approaches to stress
Now that we understand a bit more about stress, there are three different ways to go about combating it. We’ll start with the physical.
Physical emotions precede mental feelings. This means that one approach to beating stress this holiday season is to target your body. Deep breathing, exercise and progressive muscle relaxation – these are all effective strategies to alter the chemicals within your body and their resultant physical sensations.
One particular strategy is The Squat. The next time an unwanted stress response arises, place your back against a wall and sit into a deep squat for around 60 to 90 seconds.
As you struggle to maintain this position, your muscles will burn off excess cortisol and you will begin to breathe deeply. This ‘exhaustion’ alters sensations within your body allowing you to more easily select a new feeling.
Then there’s the mental.
Feelings are selected according to how we interpret physical sensations. This means a second approach to beating stress is to target our minds. Meditation, mindfulness and exposure therapy – these tried-and-true strategies aim to help you re-frame situations and alter your interpretations.
Once you re-label a formerly stressful sensation as exciting, intriguing, or even funny, this can shift the chemical response in your brain.
And finally, there’s some good planning.
Think back to previous holidays, are there any particular moments or events that drove your stress response? Perhaps it’s a particular relative, or a specific gathering, or a certain work event.
The simplest and most efficient way to avoid a predictable stress response is to simply avoid the situation you know will trigger it.
Granted, this strategy will do nothing to help you develop the skills and strategies to combat unpredictable stressors in the future – but it’s a quick-fix that could be the difference between a memorable or (literally) un-memorable holiday season this year.
So enjoy your break, and if you can, relax.
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