It’s December, that infamous month where the notion of too much to do and too little time to do it really comes into its own. We’re pushed to the limits with holiday parties, family obligations, gift giving, etc., all while trying to maintain a full work schedule. Factor in a couple of weeks of not-enough sleep, not-so-healthy holiday foods and a few extra drinks and you’ve pretty much written the recipe for a stress cocktail, plus a bad cold. Small wonder, many people look forward to the arrival of January!

But, since few of us can skip the month of December altogether, there are ways to better manage this stressful season while preserving your health and sanity. Here are a few tips to help keep body and soul on an even keel for the next few weeks and well into the New Year:

1) Stay the course and be good to your body.

As soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are cleared, we’re off to the holiday races, and our normal routine gets thrown to the wind – which generates more stress (and some guilt too)! So, this year, instead of trashing your routine, maintain at least some semblance of it, albeit in compressed form. If you’re a gym enthusiast, keep at it, just trim your workout time by a third or half if that’s all the time you’ve got. If your diet usually goes holiday haywire, front load your days with a healthy smoothie and a low-carb, plant-heavy lunch to offset the occasional holiday party slip-up. Go easy on alcohol which disrupts your precious, too few hours of sleep – and alternate cocktails with water to stay hydrated. At holiday gatherings, try to eat and drink as early in the evening as possible so that digestion is done long before you turn in to ensure a decent night’s sleep.

2) Have a battle plan.

Planning is a big part of our work lives, so why not apply a similar approach to the holidays? Put together a timeline, make lists, delegate projects and subcontract whenever possible. You really don’t have to do it all, so don’t fall into the martyr-mindset that may have worked (or not) for your mom’s generation. Your life is different from hers, your time is likely in shorter supply, so handle the holidays on your terms, not hers.

3) Let go of perfection.

Perfection is overrated, so let it go if cutting holiday stress is your goal. Yes, the kids can wrap Nana’s presents in their own ‘creative’ way, and no, you don’t have to make holiday cookies for the entire neighborhood just like you did last year. Go a step further and send holiday cards in January if that’s what works for you. Put self-preservation first and the holiday season on your timetable, not the Hallmark Card-designated one – so you can give your body and mind the much needed gift of rest and less stress. If you’re in charge of turning out the holiday meal, take advantage of short cuts and anyone who offers to bring a special dish to help relieve hosting duties. Few guests will remember the overdone Brussels sprouts, but they’ll never forget a holiday host meltdown.

4) Expand the season.

We are trained to think that it all has to happen in December, but why not move some of the fun stuff into January to release the stress valve a bit? Instead of stuffing everything into a mere 30 days, why not take advantage of the first few weeks of January to lengthen the season? Visit friends on a more leisurely schedule, keep the decorations out a bit longer and give yourself things to look forward to in what can otherwise be a downer time of the year.

5) Commit to less.

In the season of excess stress, now’s the time to re-train yourself to say ‘no,’ instead of automatically saying ‘yes’ to everything. If it’s tough for you to say no, then have a standard response ready for those non-essential activities and last-minute invites, something like “I’d love to but I’m already committed that night,” should do the trick. If you’re concerned about offending by turning down an invite, try to book date early in the new year to make up for the holiday bailout.

6) Ditch the traditions that stress you out.

If you find yourself rolling your eyes and wondering, “why the heck am I doing this,” chances are, that particular holiday tradition has become a stress-inducing chore, and isn’t relevant to your life anymore. If it’s taking time away from something you’d rather be doing, then it’s time to lose it. Ditch a particular activity altogether or at least lessen the time commitment. One of my patients discovered that when she went home for the holidays and stayed for 2 nights instead of the traditional 4, the brevity of the visit made the time spent with family more meaningful and minimized opportunities for discord.

7) De-stress your immune system.

Now more than ever, you really do need to think of your body as a temple. Overdoing it on alcohol and sugar, while getting inadequate rest, will weaken your ability to fight off winter ills just as your exposure is peaking. So instead of undermining immunity, fortify it at every opportunity. To do that, take the following food-based approach:

  • Restrict the time you consume your food to an 8 – 10 hr window. The other 14 – 16 hrs of fasting or not consuming food, will trigger your body’s self-cleansing mechanisms.
  • During that 8 – 10 hr eating window, eat plenty of greens to feed your gut bacteria exactly what they need to keep immunity strong.
  • Eat as mindfully and consciously (as you do the rest of the year), and have a healthy snack before going out to parties to cut cravings and limit over-indulging.
  • Lay off sugar, alcohol and junk food, eating as cleanly as possible in between holiday events, and choose party foods wisely to help keep the bad bacteria in your gut from overwhelming the good, weakening your immune system’s defenses.
  • Keep digestion on track with prebiotics and probiotics. If elimination slows, add some magnesium citrate to help ease constipation.

8) Release the stress valve and indulge in feeling good.

As the season ramps up, even the most patient among us may be left with a shorter-than-usual fuse. My advice? Make a concerted effort to tame tension frequently, before you get to the point of blowing a gasket! Here are a few techniques to calm, soothe and downshift seasonal stress. When done on their own or in combination, they’ll help make your season a calmer one — and that’s truly something to celebrate:

  • When you get up, before your day really gets underway, do your best to center and soothe with 5-10 minutes of silent or guided meditation.
  • Next, do some energizing yoga stretches to power up for the day. Even if a handful of sun salutations is all you can muster, they’ll help tame anxiety and stress, while boosting concentration and focus.
  • At lunchtime or after work, indulge in a sauna – infrared is especially helpful for healing and immunity – or take a brief 20-minute power nap to refresh your over-taxed body.
  • No time for a sauna? Then before bed, steep yourself in a hot bath to de-stress and relax muscles and blood vessels, helpful for keeping defenses high and bringing on deep, restorative sleep.

Have a healthy and low-stress holiday season!

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