November ushers in the winter holiday season, initiating two months of hope, love, joy, peace … and the highest stress levels of the year. However fun the festivities may be, there’s no denying that everything that goes into them – the shopping, the cooking, the traveling, the socializing – mixes equal parts magic and nervous tension into every day.

So, you have two options: incubate a mental breakdown that will mostly likely hatch when there’s an audience, or develop and incorporate a stress-management plan into your day. Many of us are guilty of putting off dealing with stress because our emotions can be so inconvenient. But all that does it give our emotions control over when we address them, not whether we address them. Rarely does that ever work out well for anyone.

What to do though? You can drown your stress in the sea of chemicals in Prozac, Valium and other prescriptions, sure. A better option, however, is to wash away your stress by triggering your body’s relaxation response. With medical cannabis and relaxation techniques, you can be the one who sets the terms for addressing your emotions and stress. And if you do that, your mind, body and soul (as well as innocent bystanders) will be better for it. Here’s how to do that.

Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV/pexels.com

Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV/pexels.com

Defining “Stress”

Simply put, stress is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure owing to a one-time event (e.g., a job interview) or short-term circumstances (e.g., moving to another residence). This differs from anxiety, which manifests as stress but needs no external event or circumstances to be triggered, and which serves no constructive purpose. By contrast, stress can be constructive. As psychologist Dr. Josh Briley explains:

“Without some level of stress, we don’t perform at our best. Like the butterflies you would get before taking a test, or if you’re an athlete, the anxiety you get before a performance. That releases adrenaline and gets your body ready to perform, and actually enhances your performance. … For healthy stress, … when the situation is over, you’re able to kind of relax, regroup, and then get ready for the stressful situation because there’s always something that’s coming at us. With an unhealthy level of stress, you stay keyed up, so you’re not able to relax naturally.”

Photo by AnnaShvets/pexels.com

Photo by AnnaShvets/pexels.com

There are three categories of stress: acute, acute episodic and chronic. The first of these is short-lived and causes such symptoms as sweaty palms and muscle tension. When that becomes the norm for someone because it happens so often, it is diagnosed as episodic. Physical symptoms from episodic acute stress range from migraines to coronary heart disease as the body is battered by long-term stress spikes.

Similarly, with chronic stress, someone afflicted likely won’t recognize it because they’re so used to feeling stressed out more or less continuously. This is often the case for people in helpless situations or unending cycles that lie beyond their control, such as poverty and abusive relationships. Like episodic acute stress, chronic stress takes a toll on the heart, while also causing fatigue, digestive issues and a weakened immune system – among numerous other serious ailments. For that reason, chronic stress is often referred to as a “silent killer.”

Photo by Inzmam Khan/ pexels.com

Photo by Inzmam Khan/ pexels.com

Getting Started

The root cause of stress is emotional. Accordingly, the best ways to take control of your stress are to gain insight, respond better to the life problems that trigger stress, and modify your behavior where needed to render you healthier.

First, you need to identify what’s causing stress in your life. Only with that awareness can you establish a plan for removing these stressors, such as finding a new job or creating healthy boundaries with people. Causes of stress vary by individual, but some of the most common ones are:

  • Illness (temporary or chronic).
  • Bereavement.
  • Abuse.
  • Failed relationships.
  • Unemployment.
  • Caregiving responsibilities.
  • Natural disasters.
  • Debt.
  • Pressure to succeed.
  • Self-image or body-image.

The holiday season compounds those by adding these stressors:

  • Financial demands (gifts, travel, food, decorations, etc.).
  • Interpersonal dynamics (notably, conflict) of families.
  • Maintaining personal health habits (diet, exercise, etc.).
  • Sudden increase in responsibilities (shopping, hosting guests, entertaining visitors, etc.).
  • Disruption to work-life balance (working or falling behind on work while on vacation, etc.).
  • Intensified grief from reminders of what was lost to death, estrangement and other types of loss.
  • Travel (traffic jams, crowded airports, etc.).
  • Additional social commitments (work parties, school plays, etc.).
  • Self-criticism from focusing on goals not met by the end of the year.

Photo by Wilfredor, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Wilfredor, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Managing Holiday-Season Stress

1. Plan menus, gifts and other holiday-specific needs no later than early November. The number of tasks you’re faced with skyrockets in the winter months. Don’t wait until you’re overwhelmed by everything that’s added up by mid-to-late November to start getting organized.

2. Set a gift budget and stick to it. Calculate how much you spent on gifts last year and divide that amount by 12. (If you have no idea what you spent last year, calculate 1% of your total income and divide that by 12.) If you’ve been saving at least that amount every month, you can base your gift budget on the previous year’s spending; if you haven’t, consider how much you can afford this year instead. Then, make a list of the people you’re getting gifts for, and divide your gift budget among the people on that list. If you end up exceeding your limit for one person, cut back on what you’ve allocated to someone else.

Photo by Nati/pexels.com

Photo by Nati/pexels.com

3. Say “no” when you need to. If someone asks for your help with a holiday chore when you’ve already got a huge holiday work load, just say, “Sorry, I can’t.” If that person isn’t sympathetic and understanding, that’s their problem, not yours. You’re not responsible for (or in control of) anyone’s feelings, so don’t feel guilty about upsetting someone by asserting yourself.

4. Don’t show up to large meals with an empty stomach. Maintaining a nutrition plan year-round would be ideal, but sometimes you get the YOLO spirit and just don’t care about letting loose on the dessert buffet (and more). Anticipate the rebel foodie inside you and get ahead of them by snacking on healthful foods to lessen your appetite at that buffet. Drinking a lot of water can make you feel full too, and extra hydration is a huge plus when you’re under stress.

5. Be kind to yourself (and others). The holidays can ignite strong feelings in people who have experienced traumatic events, family conflict and/or the loss of a loved one. Remember to do things just for yourself that you enjoy even if others don’t. As part of that, get some fresh air outside and connect with nature as much as possible, even if just for a few minutes each day. And if there’s an opportunity to volunteer and help people, take it. Even the most reclusive introvert will get a mood boost from doing a good deed.

Photo by cottonbro studio/pexels.com

Photo by cottonbro studio/pexels.com

Managing All Kinds of Stress, All Year Long

The previous section provided five action-specific survival strategies for smoothly navigating the acute stress experienced during (and as a result of) the holiday season. This section provides two behavior-specific wellness strategies for use with acute episodic and chronic stress.

These strategies are rooted in the science of the brain, so they are biologically primed to help all individuals, regardless of specific stressors. They can be used in tandem with the holiday survival strategies to amplify the effectiveness of both.

1. Use your brain’s cannabinoid receptors constructively. Every human brain has an endocannabinoid system (ECS) that is part of our broader central nervous system. When interviewed by Head Magazine, ECS expert Dr. Nick DiPatrizio summarized the ECS as follows: “The system is there to regulate pretty much every physiological function in the body. A nice way to think about this is that we produce our body’s own natural cannabis, and these molecules are called the endocannabinoids.”

Cannabis’s main psychotropic ingredient, delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), interacts with the ECS, and that’s how cannabis alters your cognitive and physiological functions. The non-psychotropic ingredient cannabinoid (CBD) also interacts with the ECS, but delivers the benefits of cannabis without the high of THC. Our interview with filmmaker David Jakubovic, director of the 2020 documentary “CBD Nation,” reveals the body’s intricate means of processing CBD. For additional, empirical input from natural medicine expert Dr. Pejman Bady, watch or read the transcript from our interview with him.

To use the ECS constructively as a means of reducing the physical symptoms of stress, consume cannabis with lower THC (approximately 7.5 milligrams of THC per dose of cannabis). For dosing guidance, read our article “Can Marijuana Help Manage Stress?” and the transcripts of Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of our interview with cannabis pain management expert Dr. Michael Moskowitz. Additional information is available in the hyperlinked references in the Sources and Suggested Reading section.

Image via Wikiversity/ CC BY 4.0 Deed

Image via Wikiversity/ CC BY 4.0 Deed

2. Activate your body’s relaxation response to diminish stress hormones. The relaxation response is the counterpart of our body’s fight-or-flight response. Whereas the latter increases your heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, muscular tension and sweat, the former slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure and decreases oxygen consumption and levels of stress hormones. Here are some ways to activate that response.

  • Practice deep breathing. Breathe in slowly and deeply, pushing your stomach out so that your diaphragm is put to maximal use. Then, hold your breath briefly before slowly exhaling as you focus your thoughts on relaxing your body and mind. Repeat that sequence five to 10 times.
  • Try progressive muscle relaxation. Owing to the detailed instructions for this technique, it’s best that you have someone read these aloud to you while you follow the directions. (Alternatively, record yourself reading them and play the recording back while doing this.) Make sure to go to a quiet, secluded place where you can sit or lie down comfortably. Then, for each major muscle group (one at a time), tighten each muscle and maintain the contraction for 20 seconds until slowly releasing it. As the muscle relaxes, concentrate on the release of tension and the sensation of relaxation. Start with your facial muscles, then work down the body.
  • Meditate. Someplace where you’ll be free of distractions and interruptions, get into a comfortable position that will allow your body to relax. Determine to achieve and maintain a relaxed, passive mental attitude, and concentrate on a mental device. The most common mental device is a mantra, which is just a simple word or syllable that is repeated rhythmically like a chant.
  • Spend time in nature. Whether it’s a five-minute walk around the block or planting something new in your garden, just get outside at least a little every day.
  • Take a self-compassion break during the day. Identify one nice thing you can do for yourself, and do that thing. Pay attention to what your needs are.

For other ideas, check out the step-by-step instructions that Harvard Medical school provides in “Exercising to relax” and “Six relaxation techniques to reduce stress.” You can also download an app that provides relaxation exercises or tips for practicing mindfulness, such as Headspace, Calm and Healthy Minds Program. You can also search social media for ideas by following such hashtags as #MentalHealthMatters, #StressManagement, #SelfCare, #Mindfulness, #ReduceStress and #HealthyChoices.

Photo by olia danilevich/pexels.com

Photo by olia danilevich/pexels.com

Mind, Body and Soul in Check

With cannabis, walks outdoors, mindful meditation, focused deep breathing and other natural ways of handling stress, your quality of life – both mental and physical – will rise. Each of us responds differently to cannabis even though all of us are using the same part of our central nervous system to process the plant’s ingredients. Nevertheless, research has shown (see the sources below) that there’s a net-positive reduction in stress for those who make low-THC cannabis part of their self-care routine. If it’s something you’ve never tried, and if your doctor has given you the OK, consider branching out this holiday season. By experimenting (safely), you’ve got nothing to lose but your stress.

Kathleen Hearons is a writer, editor, linguist and voice over actor from Los Angeles. She specializes in creative writing and research-intensive analysis and reporting.  

 

 

 

Sources and Suggested Reading

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“5 Stress Management Tips for International Stress Awareness Week.” Connections. Accessed October 28, 2023. https://connectionshs.com/resources/5-stress-management-tips-for-international-stress-awareness-week.

“6 Tips to Help With Holiday Stress.” Northwestern Medicine. Accessed October 29, 2023. https://www.nm.org/healthbeat/healthy-tips/emotional-health/tips-to-help-with-holiday-stress.

“7 Steps to Manage Stress and Build Resilience.” Office of Research on Women’s Health, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed October 28, 2023. https://orwh.od.nih.gov/in-the-spotlight/all-articles/7-steps-manage-stress-and-build-resilience.

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