Thanksgiving is here, which means the beginning of the holiday season for most residents. Regardless of faith, this time offers the opportunity to connect with family, friends and perhaps something greater. It can also bring an unwanted guest — stress.
If the cooking, shopping, traveling, spending, volunteering, partying and attending “family obligations” triggers the experience of being “stressed out,” you’re not alone. National polls show that about 80 percent of people find the holidays to be somewhat or very stressful. When we feel the desire to fight, flee or freeze, Asheville’s wellness community asks us to stop and take a breath (or even ten).
“Stressful situations create physiological responses, such as shallow breathing, increased heart rate and sweaty palms,” says Connie Schrader, director of UNCA’s biofeedback lab. “When we breathe from the diaphragm we initiate a parasympathetic response and as a result feel more cool.”
Generally speaking, the parasympathetic nervous system is part of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates the internal, involuntary processes over which we have little or no control. With some of those processes, like breathing, we can willfully intervene in the stress response to produce greater relaxation.
Most wellness practitioners start a conversation on stress by saying that nothing is inherently stressful. A flat tire can be a tragedy if we’re excited to get somewhere, or a miracle if we’re trying to avoid a date.
“Mental stress can be caused by our unconscious interpretations of things,” says Dr. Jim Biddle of Asheville Integrative Medicine. “‘I’m too fat, too slow, not enough; there’s not enough time; I can’t do it.’ These stories create feelings of tension, but we can get a handle on them. Meditation helps access that inner dialogue.”
Cat Matlock, owner of West Asheville Yoga, asks students to focus on physical sensations to get the mind off the “hamster wheel” of incessant thinking: focus on the inhale/exhale; feel the soles of the feet contact the ground; tune into subtle sounds around you; or simply notice the body’s natural expansion in response to gravity.
According to the Mayo Clinic, learning to think positively is another key to stress management. Nancy Lubowicz, a local provisional Licensed Clinical Social Worker, recommends helpful reminders, like an inspiring poem on the wall, a list of self-care activities in your wallet or an alarm to remind yourself to check in. She also recommends learning appropriate self-care techniques and ways of prioritizing tasks.
If you do find yourself on the spin cycle of negative thinking, rest assured — it can be changed. “We teach people to say ‘no’ to their habituated response — whether it’s holding the neck with tension or [getting] overwhelmed,” says Theta Michele Drivon, a local certified teacher of the Alexander Technique, which encourages physical and mental balance through posture, movement and conscious breathing. “Waiting a moment before acting gives people access to their center and the ability to choose a more helpful response.”
Acting from a place of center will decrease our stress in other ways too. “When we’re on the prowl for others to tell us how to behave and what to do, we feel disingenuous,” says Schrader. “This external approach will almost always create feelings of stress. Instead, learn to be quiet and listen within.”
Biddle reminds us that there are physiological causes to stress as well. Some often-overlooked causes include unstable blood sugar (resulting from too much simple carbohydrates and not enough protein and fiber from whole foods), excessive caffeine (especially in the form of coffee), sleep apnea and mercury toxicity. These conditions produce cortisol, the hormone released by the adrenal glands in response to stress.
Cortisol is just one hormone that influences our stress response. Other important players include serotonin and dopamine, the so-called “feel-good” hormones.
Some doctors apply these hormones during times of stress by prescribing “serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitors” (SSRI’s). Though popular, Biddle cautions about their addictive qualities and failure to address underlying issues.
“Bio-chemically, there are other things to look at first,” he says, suggesting that many people with anxiety are deficient in magnesium and vitamin B-6, both of which help make serotonin. Functional tests, offered at some local holistic health practices, can determine if supplements are needed.
Biddle will also turn to herbal formulas. His favorites include Holy Basil, Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Schizandra, wild oats, kava and licorice. (These herbs are not for everyone, he cautions, especially people with high blood pressure or other specific conditions.)
“And don’t forget the importance of regular exercise,” he adds.
The holiday season can include a long to-do list, sugary foods and a lot of outward, social activity. This year, instead of getting caught in the cycle of stress, we can learn to find more ease. Perhaps by supporting ourselves with nurturing tools, going inward to connect to our center and following what has meaning and heart, we will find the peace of the season.
— Jacquelyn Dobrinska is an Asheville-based writer and yoga therapist working on an advanced degree in Health.