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This is your brain on Christmas
Lattin family
Rebecca Lattin and her husband, Rob, stay busy during the holiday season attending church and school activities with their seven kids. Not pictured is their youngest, Eliana.

Anton Armstrong looks forward to the holiday season all year long. It’s not the passive sort of anticipation common among young children or “It’s a Wonderful Life” fans; it’s the active kind. He looks forward to December like his job depends on it. Because it does.

As the conductor of the nationally renowned St. Olaf Choir, Armstrong helps lead St. Olaf College’s annual Christmas festival, an event broadcast on both radio and television from the campus in Northfield, Minnesota.

Armstrong and his colleagues begin meeting each January to plan the year’s program. The week of the performance, in early December, they gather for hours each day with nearly 600 student musicians, preparing for concerts that seat 3,000 people per night.

“It’s an intense time,” he said, especially when his teaching and other conducting commitments are factored in.

Although his job is unusual, Armstrong’s holiday stress is not unique. The month of December, treasured for gatherings with family and friends and religious services, is also an anxiety-filled affair, rife with opportunities to feel panicked, guilty, sad and downright out-of-sorts. It can cause the body’s emotional response center in the brain to work overtime, depleting energy and leaving people on edge.

And yet there is relief available to those who learn to address their holiday stress. It involves a strategy hinted at by Armstrong, who said that, in spite of the chaos, he leaves the Christmas festival concerts feeling calm and renewed.

“(The festival’s) recessional hymn is often ‘Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,’ with the final line, ‘Lost in wonder, love and praise,’ “ he said. “That’s how I think of the concert. For 90 minutes I get to be lost in wonder, love and praise.”

Pressure points

Throughout the holiday season, people are pulled in dozens of different directions, both physically and emotionally. There are extra events on the calendar and never-ending to-do lists.

A 2006 study from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner reported that 61 percent of people experience stress “often” or “sometimes” during the holidays, citing the pressure to overspend on gifts, travel to family gatherings and resist the temptation to overindulge in sweets.

These pressures take a toll on the body, sending stress responses in the brain into hyperdrive. In acute episodes, the heart races, the stomach knots and muscles tense, expending energy that the body would normally use for everyday processes like digestion or immune system support.

Barbara Hale, a social worker and department manager at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, noted that stress is a natural response to holiday schedules, even if it can detract from the season’s happier emotions.

“There are a lot of ‘shoulds’ that go with the holidays. ‘I should see this person’ or ‘I should include that person.’ ‘I should buy X.’ There are a lot of things that we perceive as things we have to do or should do,” said Hale, who has written about strategies to combat holiday stress for her organization.

Rebeca Lattin, a mother of seven kids ranging from 11 months to 20 years old, offered the example of the “Elf on the Shelf“ phenomenon, a new and trendy Christmas tradition that uses an elf doll to encourage kids to be on their best behavior. She knows she doesn’t have time for it, but still feels guilty.

“In my mind, I think I should do that,” she said, even if she already feels overwhelmed by the family’s regular holiday traditions.

Part of the problem, Hale said, is that people often feel inadequate when they compare their holiday performance to friends’ and family members’ accomplishments.

“We always think everybody else is doing OK, but none of us are great,” she said. Around this time of year, “all of us are just the best we can be.”

Stress shutdown

As Thanksgiving festivities draw to a close, Kendall Martin, a special-education teacher and mother of three, always finds herself taking a deep breath and preparing for the hectic month ahead.

“I want (the holiday season) to be special not only for my own kids, but also for my kids at school,” said Martin, 46, who described running from school Christmas programs to church services, trying to make time in between to help her parents with their own holiday preparations.

She said her schedule is so crowded that she sometimes forgets the activities most meaningful to her family -- things like reading an Advent reflection together each evening. Sometimes she sees the Advent guide from her church on the kitchen counter when she leaves for work in the morning and carries guilt with her throughout the day, Martin said.

“I know what (the holidays) should be about, but I can’t always get there,” she said.

Rajita Sinha, director of the Yale Stress Center and a professor of psychiatry, has heard many stories like Martin’s during her tenure. She considers stress one of the most common reactions to the holiday season, and has led research studies on how it impacts people’s mental and physical health.

In one such study, discussed in a Scientific American story (paywall) titled, “This is your brain in meltdown,” Sinha and her colleagues determined that high stress levels can lead to overindulgence because the brain loses its control over emotions and impulses.

That’s why people might have a few extra drinks or eat a second helping of pie, Sinha said, noting that acute stress can also disrupt sleeping patterns and lead to other physiological responses like a racing heartbeat or body cramps.

Although the body is good at adapting on its own to periods of high stress, Sinha said it’s important for people to practice self-care, making time in their schedules for routine events that add a sense of normalcy to a chaotic season.

“If you usually go to a class, see a therapist or have a group hangout, don’t give up on it,” she said. “These activities reset the body and mind. When that happens, you sort of come to the stressful situation at hand in a different way.”

Sharing stress

Another key to combatting holiday stress is communication, both with ourselves and our friends and family members, Hale said.

“We each become our own protectors,” she noted.

She encourages people to be open about their holiday struggles, supporting the kind of honesty Lattin showed when she admitted her “Elf on the Shelf” anxiety.

“Stress isn’t something to be avoided. It’s to be managed,” Hale said. “When there are things going on that we keep secret … from ourselves and from people in our lives, we reduce the chance that we’ll improve the situation.”

Without open communication, people experiencing stress remain stuck on that emotion, missing out on the other emotions of the season.

Sinha also highlighted social connections, noting that friends are important sources of comfort.

“When you’re stressed about the holidays, talk to somebody about it,” she said. Just talking through something can help people discover new solutions.

Lattin said she and her family talk through their schedules each morning and find ways to bring everyone together at school events or for family Bible studies.

“We try to maintain some sort of normalcy, like supporting each other at different holiday concerts,” said Lattin, 45.

Additionally, she has all of her kids write down three things that they’re grateful for each evening, so that they’re also being intentional about remembering the best aspects of the season.

Practicing mindfulness

During a stressful season, it’s easy to feel unsettled or out of balance.

That’s why it’s so important to be intentional with scheduling and to give each project or event your full attention, Hale said.

This strategy, also known as mindfulness, involves actively focusing on emotions and thoughts in the present moment, leaving aside distractions such as worries and stress about the past or the future.

Hale offered the example of her morning commute. During the first few miles of her drive, she rolls her windows down to breathe the fresh air and admire the reservoir near her home. She savors those moments, and encourages people to do something similar when they sit down to enjoy the meal they spent hours preparing or when they watch their children open gifts.

“Intentionality and mindfulness are one of the ways that we can really take care of ourselves, ground ourselves and see the beauty in any part of any day,” Hale said.

Although Armstrong doesn’t always have the benefit of a 90-minute performance to keep his mind from racing to other holiday duties, he said he finds other ways to achieve the same calm.

He goes to concerts in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and plans fun activities for visiting friends and families. He reflects on the St. Olaf Choir’s performance and rejoices about bringing a little more beauty into the world.

“This can be one of the most joyous periods or more stressful and depressive. In some sense, it’s in our own hands,” Armstrong said.

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