December 12, 2007 > Conquer Holiday Stress
Conquer Holiday Stress
Emotional Stress Can Lead to Physical Symptoms If Left Unchecked
Last minute shopping trips. Visits to relatives. Traveling with young children. Money worries. A house full of guests. Pressure from work.
The holiday season can be a stressful time that we tend to write off as par for the course. What we may not realize until we're in the doctor's office is that the added stress the holidays bring can erode both physical and mental well-being if it's not addressed, according to Dr. Hoang Trinh, Washington Township Medical Group family practice physician and medical director of Nakamura Clinic, Union City.
Stress can take a toll on health
"Stress can be the underlying force of many physical illnesses," Dr. Trinh says. "Oftentimes, people feel tired or fatigued from increasing demands at work. Additionally, they may have over-committed themselves between going to work, shopping, worrying about the kids and dealing with other pressures. They begin going to sleep later, and if they aren't getting the appropriate rest, it may suppress their immune system. When you're not eating well, not exercising, not sleeping well, it will make you more susceptible. It's very difficult to balance the demands of travel, houseguests, shopping, cooking and various other holiday issues without feeling overwhelmed. And oftentimes, you don't realize those are the underlying forces of what is bothering you."
During the holiday season, Dr. Trinh says he often sees an influx of patients complaining of ailments such as headaches, upper neck and back pain, insomnia, anxiety and depression. Many patients don't immediately recognize that their symptoms may be stress-related.
Additionally, stress combined with unhealthy eating habits during the holidays can negatively impact pre-existing conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol, according to Dr. Trinh.
While feelings of stress and heightened anxiety during the holidays can be expected, Dr. Trinh notes, he emphasizes that how people choose to deal with the stress is important. Patients will oftentimes address the physical symptoms of stress without seeking out its root cause.
"If patients come in complaining of headaches or feeling tired, they can take something for the headache, but in the end if they are not managing their stress level, they're going to continue having headaches and feeling run down," he warns.
How to combat stress naturally
Many patients can find relief from stress-related aches and pains by making some simple lifestyle adjustments or by not letting themselves fall into bad habits during the holidays.
Making healthy dietary choices can be a good place to start, Dr. Trinh says. He recommends people cut back on caffeine, increase their fluid intake, eat more fiber, consume less sodium, choose foods lower in fats, and eat fewer sugary items. Substances like sugar and caffeine, he says can trigger highs and lows in most people's moods, but making healthy food choices can maximize how they feel.
In addition to good food choices, Dr. Trinh encourages people to get at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, such as walking or biking, a day. As the days continue to shorten, he says many people begin skipping their afternoon walks or shun the gym when it's dark and cold. But regular exercise can serve as another natural mood booster.
Other types of exercise, including stretching and meditative activities such as tai chi and yoga, can help relieve tense muscles and induce feelings of relaxation to counteract the effects of holiday stress as well.
For people feeling particularly vulnerable to stress, Dr. Trinh recommends taking action to relax.
"If someone is complaining about significant neck, back or shoulder pain, I suggest massages and stretching exercises," he says. "For patients who are visibly nervous, I suggest deep breathing exercise or anything else that relaxes them - going in a dark room and listening to relaxing music, burning candles, spending time with a certain person, counseling or even taking up a hobby that they find that takes their mind off of stressful issues."
Getting to the root of the problem
Over the long-term, stress can adversely affect a person's sleep-wake cycle, leading to a variety of issues. According to Dr. Trinh, when people are not able to sleep well, the psychological effects can include anything from difficulty concentrating at work to a nervous breakdown.
Treatments vary depending on the individual, but in all cases, Dr. Trinh says it's important to tackle the underlying issues causing the stress to achieve results.
"There are certain anti-anxiety medications that are very effective in treating anxiety symptoms, but again, you have to look at the root of the problem," he says. "Additionally, sleep aids can help get the sleep-wake cycle back in rhythm. Depending on the symptoms, other treatments might include physical therapy, stretching, muscle relaxants and exercises. For someone who is experiencing worsening depressive symptoms after trying conservative measures, I would recommend them seeking professional psychiatric help. Depending upon the individual case, if they are experiencing signs of depression and have ongoing problems, I will in some cases treat them with antidepressants."
Patients who might benefit from the short-term immediate relief provided by anti-anxiety medications are ones experiencing symptoms such as restlessness, palpitations, sweating and chronic nervousness, but Dr. Trinh stresses that unless they treat the underlying cause of the anxiety, the symptoms will return.
Overall, he says he usually tries to remind patients during the holidays to focus on the positive things in their life rather than the negative.
"I tell them to try being more positive and grateful for things they have and try not to worry about things that are out of their control," says Trinh. "Try to get enough rest. Stay active and exercise. Eat well."
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