Warm mineral waters from a mountain spring in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia swirled around my husband Russ and me during a recent visit to the place that George Washington helped make famous as a stress relief destination. By “taking the waters” we were hoping for a fun time together and a holiday stress detox. For centuries, people had raved about the water’s power to relax the soul and cleanse the body of toxins. All thoughts about time and money pressures evaporated like the steam that rose from 102-degree water, even though it felt like we were being boiled like tea or mulled wine for a holiday party.
It took patience to stay in such hot water long enough to experience its well-being benefits. We had to stand up, move around, and drink multiple cups of cold water to stay alert while immersed in the pool. But the healing results were worth the effort. By increasing our blood circulation and making us sweat, the water helped our bodies get rid of toxic chemicals that had collected in our muscles. By lowering our blood pressure and immersing us in a peaceful environment, the water signaled our minds to relax and enjoy the present moment.
Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to be able to achieve such benefits without having to visit a special place? This holiday season, I’m trying to take home the healing lesson I learned at the mountain spring: that stress relief doesn’t really come through quick fixes, but through patiently nurturing good health.
So often during the holidays, I’ve been tempted to think that a quick fix of something fun — like eating another Christmas cookie or watching another TV show — will magically relieve stress. But quick fixes only leave me feeling more broken down by stress.
It’s common to respond to holiday stress in unhealthy ways such as eating too much sugar, drinking too much alcohol, and missing sleep, according to research from the American Psychological Association. For a short while, it feels good to lull on a sofa in front of a holiday movie drinking craft beer and eating chocolate Santas. But once the movie ends, the buzz fades, and the sugar high crashes, you’ll feel worse than you did before. Stress will only surge back when you try to cover it up with a quick fix.
What really works for holiday stress management is the same strategy that works any time of year: patiently taking good care of yourself.
Instead of reacting to the holiday stress that hits you, be proactive by developing a plan to renew your body and soul on a regular basis. Build some margin into your schedule for rest and reflection that will help you stay strong mentally, emotionally, and spiritually during the busy holiday season. Don’t slack off on healthy habits that help you maintain your physical well-being — habits like getting enough sleep and exercise.
Make time to think about what’s causing you the most stress, and then be intentional about doing whatever you can to change those factors. The American Psychological Association research showed that the factors most often causing stress for people included time and money pressures, diet concerns, and family gatherings gone wrong. Let go of unrealistic expectations about these issues and simply try to get through them gracefully. Perfect holidays never actually happen for anyone. But so what? You can still enjoy the season in the midst of imperfect circumstances. Just do your best to reduce stress in advance (like setting a holiday budget, letting go of activities that aren’t really meaningful for you, and enjoying truly meaningful traditions). Then go with the flow for the rest.
Have fun, but in moderation. Instead of having another piece of pie, stop at one. After enjoying some alcoholic punch, drink water for the rest of the party. Go ahead and see a movie, but don’t binge watch several in a row. Make time for enjoyable activities that truly nurture your well-being, such as taking walks, listening to music, and praying or meditating. You can even sit in a hot bath to relax, no mineral springs required (just turn your faucet to a high temperature and throw in some bath salts).
Be patient enough to nurture yourself well. The more patient you are, the more strength you can build to manage stress well this holiday season!
Whitney Hopler works as Communications Director at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being (CWB) and has written for many media organizations, from About.com to the Washington Post. Connect with Whitney on Twitter and connect with CWB on Twitter and Facebook.