Anthony, Ng, MD - The Acadia Hospital
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Christmas holidays are upon us. It is filled with joy, celebration, anticipation of getting together with friends and families. For also many, it is a time of enormous stress, thinking about what to do for the holidays, who to buy gifts for, where do I go to get those gifts, online or waiting in long lines in bad weather as many did for Black Friday. If one is not careful, the stress of the holidays can quickly overwhelm folks and in turn make this holiday season not very fun and enjoyable.
First of all, we need to understand what is meant by stress. Whenever we hear the word stress, we only think of negative aspects of it, such as too much to do at work, too many obligations at home, relationship issues, etc., but there are other positive aspects of life that can be “stressful”, such as holidays, getting a raise or promotion, going on a first date, or getting married. As joyful and exciting as these events, they are still causing what have been described as positive stress. It is stress that is sustained, uncontrollable and overwhelming, where people can’t figure out options to solve their problems, that is damaging.
When a person experiences stress in whatever forms, they may have anxiety, frustrations, happiness and joy or anger. We often tried to cope by various things such as relaxation, reading a book, exercises, spirituality, seeking support from friends and families to name a few. And for those who faces constant stress, they may develop potential negative coping strategies that may include overworking, arguing more with families, friends and colleagues, smoking more, drinking and in some instances using illicit drugs.
We process stress in three ways, how we feel emotionally, how we feel physically and how we think. This falls back on the basic principles that human, like all animals, are born with, the “Fright or Flight” response. When an animal sees a threat from a predator, the brain processes the threat. The brain then attaches an emotion to that threat, such as fear or anger for example. The body then reacts to the threat, either by running away or by fighting it. We humans have evolved enough to now have threats or stresses that are not as visible. Nonetheless, we still behave in a way how our body is genetically imprinted with. We experience a stress. We then interpret the threat in a variety of manners. We then attach emotions to that stress and then our brain instructs our body to respond accordingly. Our body would respond for example by increasing more adrenal hormones to prepare the body for its responses, such as increased heart rate, breathing, muscle tensing to name a few.
Our body is designed to handle short bursts of these stresses. We have chemical and hormonal changes to deal with stress. A well know chemical is the stress hormone cortisol which is increased and it leads to an increase of another chemical, adrenaline. The body gears up immediately in the face of stressful stimuli. It goes to our energy stores, and releases glucose and insulin so that our muscles have the energy to deal with the stress.
These body chemicals are sustained at high rates to compensate for the stress, and as such, they can impact the body adversely over time. Additionally, the choices we make to handle this stress can influence how those stress hormones affect us. Drugs like alcohol, nicotine and cocaine, and also high-fat, high-calorie comfort foods, are powerful modifiers of the stress system. They will change our stress pathways and affect the way your body is able to control our stress response. And so, after a period of bingeing, our body’s stress response system eventually wears out. However, folks will continue to take those drugs and alcohol to compensate a weakened system. This is often what we see in addiction. Research shows that childhood stress can hardwire the brain for a lifetime of higher stress levels. Early traumatic experiences can increase children’s susceptibility to a range of high-risk behavior, such as tobacco use, binge eating, and earlier onset of alcohol consumption. It is important to keep in mind that children who see their parents stressed out during the holidays will inherently respond with their own stress and mimic parental stress responses, both good and bad ones.
Does that mean we cannot revitalize our stress responses such as the adrenals? In fact, our body is forgiving and they can recover when we take away those toxins. What is not clear is how long that process takes. The problem, though, is that while your adrenals are still recovering, you are more likely to be stressed. And stress affects abstinence and increases chances of a relapse. So then we are caught in a vicious cycle of quickly degenerating health because both the stress and the substances are working together to wear down our body systems and our stress axis, our liver, kidney, heart, blood pressure. All this can also lead to certain types of cancer.
We don’t really know which comes first, but we do know that these are all complex multi-factoral diseases. That means they don’t have one single factor that leads to the disease state. And there are factors that can make a person even more vulnerable to stress-related diseases and addiction: early trauma suffered in childhood, cumulative adversity, socio-economic status, education and also things like genetics and personality traits.
In addition to the holidays, we live in a society where there are multiple demands on us almost all the time. We need to put greater emphasis on protective factors like sitting down with the family or exercising or putting away all the electronic devices. We also need to focus on mindfulness which we all do in some form or another. Having hobbies is one as well as relaxation. They all provide healthy distractions on stress and allow us to focus on oneself.
So as you struggle to find the best bargains, what meals to prepare and who to invite for the holidays, you should take a moment to remember what the holidays is about. It is to share joy with friends, families and others. Make sure you take breathers in your busy schedules to practice stress reductions techniques, such as sitting down at the mall and taking a breather and to relax. Prioritize what you need is an efficient and healthy way to cope. Drink alcohol in moderate amounts. Don’t forget to continue your hobbies and exercises. Remember, your families and friends want you around for many more holidays to share the joy.
Happy holidays !!!
Reference: CNN Blog: The Vicious Physiology of Stress by Amanda Enayati 11/26/11
WedMD Feature: Tips for Overcoming Holidays Anxiety and Stress by R. Morgan Griffin 12/5/2011