Although time is crunched amid the tree decorating, turkey cooking and gift wrapping, maintaining a healthy diet, remaining active and being aware of your mental health can help everyone enjoy the holidays.
Major Susan Stankorb, chief of nutrition care division at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital, said having a little bit of stress is a good thing because it prepares the body for action, but too much can stress can force the body into a chronic stressful state, which is detrimental to personal well-being.
When the body enters a level of chronic stress, the risk of injury or illness increases substantially, Stankorb said. About 90 percent of doctors’ visits are for stress-related health complaints, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health. Symptoms of chromic stress include fatigue, headache and upset stomach.
“During times of high stress it’s really good to put an emphasis on self-care like eating a high quality diet, because stress in and of itself can activate some hormonal changes that tend to make you want to gain weight,” Stankorb said. “One way to keep your life balanced is to make sure you have a good, solid, quality diet established and a good quality sleep schedule.”
Stankorb said consuming a high quality diet and refraining from eating greasy foods or foods higher in fat content can help improve a person’s mood by boosting their serotonin levels.
“People who eat a higher quality diet, meaning they are meeting at least those five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, are more than five times more likely to report higher emotional well-being,” she said. “They also report higher feelings of general happiness and being more relaxed compared to those who do not eat a high quality diet.”
Thanksgiving and Christmas meals are both indulgent and often a Family tradition, however they can heavily influence a person’s stress level. Stankorb said it is important to abstain from starving yourself to gorge on holiday meals.
“In fact, you and your Family are better off if you eat some smaller meals throughout the day,” she said. “That also keeps you from overindulging on those holiday meals.”
Sticking to a regular eating schedule can help people stay in a festive mood for a longer period of time.
“Eating on a regular schedule can help maintain your emotional well-being,” she said. “Be sure to have breakfast, lunch, dinner and if needed some in between snacks just to keep your blood sugar nice and even throughout the day. This practice also helps people avoid the ‘hangries.’”
However, Stankorb cautioned people to not over indulge. During a holiday meal the average American consumes up to 4,500 calories, which is more than recommended for a healthy diet, Stankorb said. She suggests monitoring caloric intake from appetizers and alcoholic beverages during holiday meals.
“That’s not to say you can’t have your splurge, but again, a splurge shouldn’t be a 4,000- or 5,000-calorie meal,” she said. “It should be a little more moderate than that.”
Stankorb said one way to maintain a good diet during the holidays is to fill half of your dinner plate with fruits and vegetables. Be moderate with starches and try not to go back for seconds.
In addition to maintaining a healthy diet, Stankorb said it is important for people to continue exercising throughout the holidays despite disruptions to their regular schedules. She said performing a shorter, more intense workout may be beneficial to some people suffering from the holiday rush.
She said for many people chronic stress can lead them to make poor decisions, dietary and physically, which can be detrimental to their mental well-being.
“When you are stressed you are more likely to make poor dietary choices just because of where your mind is at,” she said. “People also stress eat. Some of those [poor decisions] can be attributed to sleep patterns and stress. When you are sleep deprived you don’t always make the best decisions. The holidays are go-go-go. You are trying to pack more in, but in the same amount of hours. We know time is crunched during the holidays, but try your best to take care of yourself.”
Teresa Floyd, nurse practitioner at Fort Campbell’s Intrepid Spirit Center, said holiday stress can be alleviated by practicing yoga and meditating regularly.
“Yoga helps us to find the strength to deal with lots of stress and ailments,” Floyd said. “Meditating is really good because you can calm your mind and bring back focus. Being able to be mindful and in the moment with things, especially during the holidays, is helpful.”
Floyd said around the holidays people feel stress about upcoming events and bad weather.
“Everything can just get so overwhelming,” she said. “Sometimes it’s important to be able to get quiet and still inside, even if what’s going on around us is not quiet, calm and still.”
More than 21 million people reported practicing yoga and meditation for stress relief, according to the 2016 National Health Interview Survey conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
“It’s just a time for you to get still,” Floyd said. “Some people go out into nature. There have been studies that show the sounds of nature improve your dopamine and neurotransmitters that would cause you to feel better.” Floyd said regularly practicing yoga and meditations during the holidays can help people keep things in perspective and combat feelings of being overwhelmed.
“As crazy as it sounds, laying in the floor with your feet and your legs up the way with a book on your feet to keep your ankles flexed, is very calming and good for anxiety,” she said. “Child’s pose might be a little more difficult, but it is also calming. It takes the edge off.”
For the more than 40 million adults between the ages of 18 and 54 diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, being able to remain calm during the holidays can be a struggle.
Current estimates for the number of people suffering from anxiety disorders are approximately 30 percent higher because people are misdiagnosed or refuse to seek medical help, according to the National Institute for Mental Health.
Major Gregory Mabry, deputy chief of Adult Behavioral Health at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital, said being around large crowds and trying to accommodate everyone can agitate a person with anxiety. Anxiety has become the No. 1 mental health issue in North America, according to the NIMH.
“For some it is the anxiety that comes with being social,” Mabry said. “The expectation that you will be social, you will talk to these people and you will be around these crowds can be an anxiety producing event.”
In a military community, Mabry said it is important for Families of service members to understand how stressful transitioning into civilian life and interacting with civilians can be.
“We are so used to having things very regimented,” he said. “We know what time we have to wake up and what time we need to be somewhere, but during the holiday season we are dealing with Family members who are civilians, meaning they may not be as necessarily oriented to a rigid time structure. They might just show up whenever they want to and that can be infuriating to some.”
Mabry said trying to perform “small talk” may be upsetting for service members because they feel as though their civilian Family members do not understand their job or life.
“They may experience irritation because they aren’t used to speaking with random people and creating ‘small talk.’ It is what it is. It’s kind of meaningless,” he said. “Also being enclosed with a crowd of people who don’t understand you or what you do can be very upsetting.”
When large Families gather together, the stress of being surrounded can be overwhelming for many people. He said the warning signs for an overly anxious and stressed person include clenching their fists, grinding their jaws or teeth and breathing rapidly.
“They may also be very short with people conversationally,” he said. “Overall, they want to be isolated after a short period of time with a large Family.”
Mabry said expecting a person to stay trapped in one place also can trigger their anxiety. He said having an “escape plan” or plan of action to find time to decompress during a gathering can help people privately relieve their stress.
“If you are going into a situation with a significant other, spouse or even a child, if you think you might encounter issues it’s good to have an escape plan or a phrase that will give you a chance to leave, decompress and re-enter the situation safely,” Mabry said. “Having socially acceptable expected escape plans is the best way for someone to calm down without tipping off the rest of the Family.”
Although there are ways to treat anxiety and high stress without medication or speaking with a professional, it is important to know when to seek medical help, Mabry said.
“If you feel like you can’t handle the stress of Family, conversation or large crowds you can always talk to a buddy about your experience and emotions or talk to a chaplain,” he said. “We have the 24-hour emergency center at [Adult Behavioral Health].”
Mabry encourages anyone feeling panicked to contact the center for further guidance, regardless of how severe it is.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be someone who feels suicidal,” he said. “Just someone feeling extreme anxiety could warrant a trip to the center to speak with a professional. We have people here who want to make sure you are doing OK.”
Two yoga poses for relaxation
1. Begin standing in mountain pose (Tadasana), with your arms at your sides. Distribute your weight evenly across both feet, grounding down equally through your inner ankles, outer ankles, big toes and baby toes.
2. Shift your weight to your left foot. Bend your right knee, then reach down and clasp your right inner ankle. Use your hand to draw your right foot alongside your inner left thigh. Do not rest your foot against your knee, only above or below it. Adjust your position so the center of your pelvis is directly over your left foot. Then, adjust your hips so your right hip and left hip are aligned.
3. Rest your hands on your hips and lengthen your tailbone toward the floor. Then, press your palms together in prayer position at your chest, with your thumbs resting on your sternum.
4. Fix your gaze gently on one, unmoving point in front of you.
5. Draw down through your left foot. Press your right foot into your left thigh, while pressing your thigh equally against your foot.
6. Inhale as you extend your arms overhead, reaching your fingertips to the sky. Rotate your palms inward to face each other. If your shoulders are more flexible, you can press your palms together in prayer position, overhead.
7. Hold for up to one minute. To release the pose, step back into mountain pose. Repeat for the same amount of time on the opposite side.
1. Begin by lying flat on your back with your legs extended and your arms at your sides, palms down. Bend your knees and place the soles of your feet flat on the floor.
2. On an inhalation, use your abdominal muscles to lift your legs and hips off the floor. Curl your torso and bring your knees in toward your face. Then, lift your hips and bring your torso perpendicular to the floor.
3. Bend your elbows and place your hands on your lower back with your fingertips pointing up toward the ceiling.
4. When you are comfortable, lift your thighs so they are vertical to the floor, keeping your knees bent. Draw your tailbone toward your pubic bone. Then, straighten your legs fully and reach your feet up to the ceiling. Lift through the balls of your feet.
5. Try to bring your shoulders, hips and feet into one line.
6. Keep your head and neck in line with your spine and do not turn your head. Draw your shoulder blades firmly into your upper back.
7. Hold the pose for 10-25 breaths. More advanced practitioners can hold the pose for five minutes or longer. To release the pose, slowly lower your feet back to the ground, coming into plow pose with your hands supporting your back. Then, release your hands to your sides and slowly roll down, one vertebra at a time, bending your knees if you need to.
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