How Holiday Related Stress Impacts Health

by Amylee Amos MS, RDN

Twinkle lights, carols, warming foods, and family get togethers. The holidays are in full swing! This time of year can be such a time of joy. But it’s also well established that mingled within that holiday cheer can lurk a a heavy burden of stress. During the holidays we stress about gift giving- we worry about giving the perfect gifts and we worry about the financial implications of those gifts. We stress because of the many commitments of the season. We drive ourselves crazy searching for parking spots and navigating the masses at the malls. And then, of course, there’s the impending stress of conversation with certain family members at the family Christmas party. All in all, this time of year that should be full of joy and holiday cheer can easily turn into a couple months of intense psychological stress.

It becomes so easy to write this off as inevitable stress of the season. We see this stress portrayed in movies, it’s written into holiday songs, we talk about it at work and with friends. It seems that everyone goes through it. Perhaps because it’s so commonplace, we accept this seasonal stress as normal. But in fact, this stress takes a major toll on the body with long term consequences.

Holiday stress can make you more susceptible to the common cold and other respiratory infections. During the holidays the temperature drops and we’re around big crowds of people at gatherings and parties, meaning that germs are circulating. Even if you’re eating well and washing your hands to prevent illnesses, your stress level can be a deciding factor in whether or not you get sick. Research shows that in individuals with intentional exposure to respiratory viruses (meaning that when people were actually infected with the virus as part of the study), that rates of infection and common colds increased in a dose dependent fashion with the increase in the degree of psychological stress (1).

Beyond the common cold, psychological stress is implicated in more serious pathophysiologies. Much research exists on psychological stress and cardiovascular disease. Research implicates stress in a variety of cardiovascular issues including sudden death, myocardial infarction, myocardial ischemia, and wall motion abnormalities (2). While this is likely due to more extreme stress, the connection is still startling. Other diseases such as cancer and clinical depression are also linked to higher rates of psychological stress (3). Finally, chronic stress has also been implicated in decreased brain health.

If you are concerned about brain health, then you should definitely be paying attention to your stress level. Research shows that chronic stress reduces neurogenesis (4). That means that all of that holiday stress you’re experiencing can impair the ability of your brain to create new brain cells. Part of what keeps our brains healthy is their ability to stay plastic- to adapt and grow over time. If we impair our brain’s ability to make new neurons and new synapses, we are limiting its ability to recover.

Chronic holiday stress may be common, but it’s certainly not healthy and not part of a normal lifestyle. Parking will still be a nightmare at the mall and uncomfortable interactions with distant family members may be unavoidable, but our response to these things is entirely up to us. This is where your stress management techniques come in! Take time this holiday season to breathe, to meditate, to take a bath, to listen to music that brings you joy. Give yourself some alone time, away from the hustle and bustle to manage your stress level. Whatever it takes to help you relax and stay in the moment. Your health depends on it.

References:

  1. Cohen, S., Tyrrell, D., & Smith, A.P. (1991). Psychological Stress and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. N Engl J Med, 325:606-612.
  2. Dimsdale, J.E. (2008). Psychological Stress and Cardiovascular Disease. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 51(13): 1237-46.
  3. Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Miller GE. Psychological Stress and Disease. JAMA. 2007;298(14):1685–1687. doi:10.1001/jama.298.14.1685
  4. De Andrade, J.S. et al. (2013). Chronic unpredictable mild stress alters an anxiety-related defensive response, Fos immunoreactivity and hippocampal adult neurogenesis. Behavioral Brain Research, 250, 81-90. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2013.04.031