Healthy for the holidays: Moderation

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 4, 2012

By Hugh Fisher
For the Salisbury Post
The holidays bring with them joy and splendor, warm memories and favorite songs, comfort foods and family memories.
And colds, the flu, worries over extra holiday pounds and not enough extra in the bank … the fatigue and stress of seeing and doing all there is to do.
The challenge for many Americans is not just enjoying the season, but surviving it.
Erin Wood, assistant professor of psychology at Catawba College, said that two of the keys to happier, healthier holidays are positive attitude and realistic expectations.
Wood said even people who end every holiday season stressed out tend to come back the following year with an idealized vision of how the holidays should be.
“Be realistic with your expectations for yourself,” Wood said. “Don’t set your expectations so high and then spend the holidays wondering, ‘Why don’t I look like the people I see in the commercials on television?’ ”
Dr. Bradley Chotiner, of Rockwell-based Chotiner Family Healthcare, said mental stress can lead to a variety of physical symptoms.
Depression and anxiety can cause people’s bodies to react to the stress in the world around them.
“We have a fair amount of chest pains, people going to the hospital for heart attack-like symptoms,” Chotiner said.
Both Chotiner and Wood said that the holidays are supposed to be happy times, but for many the family gatherings and festivities are overwhelming.
Wood’s advice going into the holiday season is to plan ahead for stress, remembering to get enough rest.
Even a joyful hustle and bustle outside the normal routine can overload our systems, she said.
“Our bodies don’t understand the difference between the stress of throwing a big holiday party and being slightly sick,” Wood said.
And though we can rationalize “good stress” versus “bad stress,” the frenetic pace of holiday shopping and travel can bring people down.
So can worries over finances.
“It’s a function of a whole bunch of things that are beyond our control,” Wood said.
Planning ahead and being realistic can help people respond to these problems.
Wood suggests that people identify their coping strategies before the holiday rush begins.
For some, she said, this might mean being aware of personal boundaries.
A person who doesn’t like being close to people is bound to feel stressed when dealing with the long lines, crowds and security precautions at an airport.
But a few deep-breathing exercises, or the chance to walk and stretch, or enjoy some favorite music, all can help alleviate those stresses.
Financially, Wood said, people should keep their spending, and their expectations in perspective.
“Even now, with Black Friday around the corner, people are acutely aware of how much money is going to be put on their credit cards or taken out of savings,” Wood said.
From a physical standpoint, the holidays bring with them some predictable and avoidable problems, Chotiner said.
Many focus on the pounds they fear to gain during the holidays.
While he agreed more people gain weight than lose it between Thanksgiving and Jan. 1, Chotiner said attempts at rapid weight loss can cause a host of health problems themselves.
“If you lose a lot of weight very quickly, you can be prone to gallbladder attacks and gallstones,” Chotiner said.
The key to holiday eating, he said, was to enjoy one’s favorite treats in moderation.
Some recipes can be altered to include more healthful ingredients, too.
“If you can, pick whole grain or vegetable-type dishes as opposed to all the sweets and gravies and really rich things that are going to be bad for you,” Chotiner said.
The shorter days of winter combined with stress can bring on Seasonal Affective Disorder, a condition that can lead to depression and irritability.
But scientists have shown that exposure to light and exercise can help stave off these effects
A 2004 study by researchers at the National Public Health Institute in Helsinki, Finland showed those who got eight hours of sleep a night, along with regular exercise and exposure to light, reported their depression symptoms eased.
Chotiner said regular exercise is good, no matter the season. In addition to burning calories, exercise releases endorphins.
“The brain enjoys exercise. Physical activity can help ward off depression,” Chotiner said.
But Chotiner and Wood agreed that for all the joy of the holidays, there can also be sadness.
“Families that don’t necessarily get along,” Chotiner said, “or the first holiday where there’s a loved one who’s gone.”
By getting enough sleep, watching what you eat and keeping your expectations realistic, you can minimize your risk for holiday stress and the health problems that some have come to associate with the season.
Simply focusing on the reason for the season can help — “trying to remember the reason why we have Christmas, and not getting caught up in the commercialism of it,” Chotiner said.
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.