The Holiday Stress Mess

Have you noticed that holiday sweet treats seem unusually irresistible?  Why is that?

Over and above the stresses of day to day life, this time of year is full of stress – both good stress and bad stress.  Searching for, and hopefully finding, the ‘perfect gift’ for the ‘impossible-to-buy-for’ loved one on your list.  The added financial stresses of gifts, dinners and perhaps travel expenses.  Stress at work is often on high given end of the year deadlines, too much to do before the holiday week hits and the prep stress for the New Year.   And of course, there is the stress of self-reflection back over the past year.  What changed?  What didn’t change?  The stress of unmet goals, and withered dreams.

And despite a honest commitment to limit sugar and refined flours you crave and cave – Bah, recommit.. Crave and cave… Harrumph,  recommit… Crave and cave…. Ugh!  What is going on?  Why do the holiday sweet treats seem unusually irresistible?

It’s the holiday hormone stress mess.

This intense crave and cave cycle is not your fault.  It’s your hormones – cortisol, insulin and ghrelin.

Cortisol, a key player in our fight or flight response, is a life saver hormone in a pinch – like when you needed to make a mad dash from a predator in days gone by.   Triggered by a surge of cortisol, our body almost immediately floods our bloodstream with glucose.  Your heart races, your breathing gets deeper, your muscles get twitchy and you are ready to run or pounce, whichever seems the most effective course of action.  No doubt about it, cortisol is life-saving in acute fight or flight emergency situations.  You have, at your immediate disposal, the energy you need to run if someone is threatening you with a knife.  Sprinting away, you burn off that energy, escape and survive another day.  It’s a beautiful thing.  Or at least it was.

Unfortunately, our body has only one emergency response system.  And in the 21st century, where chronic stress is the new normal, that acute emergency response system is on chronic overload.  Cortisol is always ‘on.’ We are on high alert, flooding our bloodstream with be-ready-just-in-case-fuel poised to pounce.  Then… nothing happens.  There is no need to pounce. There is nothing to run from.  It’s just your boss, or someone cutting you off in traffic, or you’re late for a meeting or you are navigating the holiday stress mess.  We are left with a bloodstream loaded with glucose, feeling jittery!

Worry not! Insulin to the rescue!  Sensing elevated glucose levels, our body releases insulin, our life saving energy storage hormone and insulin squirrels away the unnecessary be-ready-just-in-case-emergency-energy as body fat.  To make matters worse, yet another hormone, ghrelin our appetite regulation hormone, kicks in demanding we eat immediately because our emergency energy supply has been depleted and must be replenished just-in-case.  And during the holidays – guess what is everywhere?  Sugar and flour laden sweet treats!  KaBOOM.  Bye-bye weight loss commitment.

Whoa – this is crazy… One hormone triggers an energy surge draining our emergency energy supply, another hormone packs it away as body fat (predominantly around the middle) and, yet another hormone makes us feel hungry and crave snacks?  And because it’s the holidays, sugar and flour laden sweet treats are everywhere!  It’s a perfect storm.

How can we avoid this holiday hormone induced stress mess?

  • Notice and be aware. As with anything, awareness is the first step to intervention.  You cannot change something you are not aware of.  Simply recognizing when you are reaching for a sweet treat ‘just-in-case’ can abort the loop.
  • When you catch yourself reaching for sweet treats, take a brisk walk if you can, burn off some of that stress-induced excess energy (run from the predator so-to-speak.)
  • Acknowledge your hunger and reframe it. Tell yourself to chew on body fat for a few hours to meet its energy needs.
  • Decrease holiday-related stresses as much as possible. What can you eliminate?  What can you delegate?  What can you simplify?  Will the world implode if you do not find that perfect gift or if you don’t have 4 different types of homemade pie after turkey dinner with all the fixins’?  How can you rethink the holidays, and simply the family traditions?
  • Plan and choose. The truth is, the holidays are predictable.  Choose which activities are important to you and choose which activities you can skip.  Do you really need to attend festivities with your family, with the in-laws, with the blended-family-in-laws, with the ladies volunteer auxillary, with your office party and your spouses office party?
  • Decrease day to day stress – always a great plan, even without the holidays. Add a brisk walk daily, burn off some of that be-ready-just-in-case-fuel.  Take 10 minutes each day to be grateful.  Take a meditation class.  Learn to be mindful.  Stretch your body.  Learn to breathe deeply and release tension and stress with every exhale.
  • Manage your sleep. Sleep deprivation is rampant these days.  Adults need 7 – 9 hours of sleep daily.  Slow down your evening routine and dim the lights two hours before bedtime.  No screen time for at least 1 hour before sleeptime and please, no TV in the bedroom.

Understand the holiday hormone stress mess brewing below the surface.   Avoid the post-holiday regrets.   Start the New Year encouraged.

HAve a great week friends