The in-laws are arriving in less than an hour, the bathroom is not even close to clean, yet the turkey looks as sad as the Griswolds’ and you are starting to morph into a bit of a grump – even, perhaps, a Grinch.
Yes, it’s just a matter of seconds before you start cramming everything into a large, burlap sack and heading for the hills!
It’s the dreaded holiday stress, and we’ve all been there, done that. And like any stress, it can do quite a number on both your oral and overall health.
Now, stress in itself – a response to a perceived threat – isn’t a bad thing. Historically, it’s one of our survival mechanisms, perhaps better known as “fight-or-flight.” It involves a number of physiological changes:
When you feel stress, your sympathetic nervous system kicks-in, orchestrating your body’s response. Every organ, blood vessel, sweat gland, and even the tiny follicles in your skin that make your hair stand on end are affected. The adrenalin speeds up your heart rate and intensity of contractions. It diverts blood from organs that are non-essential during emergencies, and redirects it to the brain for thinking and to muscles for movement. Your breathing rate increases to keep up with oxygen demand. You become alert and vigilant.
Also released is a natural steroid called cortisol. Cortisol is amazing. When facing a short term emergency, cortisol performs an intricately-balanced, controlled shutdown of many non-essential body systems that would tax our resources.
But problems arise when this short-term state becomes ongoing. Such chronic stress can bring on anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart problems, sleep problems, memory and focus problems and more. It also makes us more vulnerable to illness.
Elevated cortisol is of particular concern, as it contributes to chronic inflammation (among other problems) – a key factor in many diseases, including gum disease. Indeed, a wealth of research shows that chronic stress and periodontal disease often go hand in hand.
Another dental effect of chronic stress is bruxing – habitually clenching or grinding your teeth. This places unnatural pressure on your teeth, which can lead to tooth fracture, gum recession, tooth sensitivity and pain through the jaw, head, neck and shoulders.
But how to reduce stress when the tree still needs trimming and the cookies need decorating and so much shopping remains to be done?
One thing you can do is avoid the stress-inducing things you can – for instance, shopping malls at their busiest times or freeways when traffic is bound to be heaviest. Another way you can go easier on yourself is simply to ask for help when needed. If you have 50 people coming over for a meal, ask others to help prepare the food. You don’t have to do this all alone.
Just taking a moment to step back, disengage and clear your mind may be enough to restore your holiday cheer. Reflection and focused thinking may be especially helpful if combined with yoga and controlled breathing.
Keeping a gratitude journal is another great way to reduce stress. Instead of focusing on everything that’s going wrong this winter, focus on went well – like the cat not knocking down the tree. Write down these thoughts, giving specific credit to those who made you feel happy, loved, or grateful.
Some other things you can do to get the better of stress are also things worth doing consistently throughout the year for both physical and mental health:
- Eat healthy and nutritious food — don’t give into the desire to gorge on the sweets that seem to be everywhere you turn this time of year.
- Take deep, diaphragmatic breaths (breathing from your belly).
- Exercise regularly.
- Have a creative outlet.
Finally, remember that it’s okay to let stuff go sometimes. It’s alright if a package comes without ribbons…
Learn more about ways to reduce stress…
Image by Rosie Rosenberger, via Flickr