The holiday season can be such a time of joy when it is shared by people we love. However, with all the traveling, shopping and holiday gatherings, there are plenty of opportunities to stress out and lose it.
Stress goes up around the holidays, says John Zrebiec, L.I.C.S.W., Director of the Behavioral Health Section at Joslin Diabetes Center. “People go home to their dysfunctional families and expect things to be different. They idealize how things should be. But their family is the same as it’s always been. They get criticized and feel disappointed.”
When you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, all that holiday schmoozing can do more than test your goodwill. It can take a toll on your health. When you are under chronic stress your body produces hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that push blood sugars up. Plus, too much stress affects your behavior. You may react to something upsetting by overeating, not taking your medications or planting yourself of the couch for days at a time.
Even so, there’s a body of research about stress and blood sugar levels that seems to indicate that how you respond to stress is what matters most, says Zrebiec. That means you have a lot of control over your health. “What really counts is your personal perception of a particular event and how you react to it, rather than whether you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes or other factors.”
A good example is getting married — for one bride it might be a relaxed, fun day, but for another it might be very stressful scenario. It’s the same event, but each person perceives it differently, and so their blood sugars react differently, says Zrebiec.
As the holiday season approaches, here are some tips to help you better cope with whatever comes your way.
Get a fresh new perspective
Changing your perception is an enormous help, says Zrebiec. “Hope springs eternal, but it’s really, really important for people to have realistic expectations about family.” This year, go to family gatherings with a changed perspective. Accept that your mother-in-law will be critical and your father will retell the same tired stories. Instead of being irritated, try to find humor in the situation.
Head off problems
The feeling of being out of control is a source of stress for most people. “So much of it is about anticipation and prevention, rather than just stumbling into situations ill-prepared,” says Zrebiec. A good way to break the cycle of tension is to identify what makes you feel your control starting to slip. “Use your past as a guide. Then ask yourself if you can find ways to do things differently to alleviate the stress.”
Dealing with slips
With relatives to visit, gifts to wrap and parties to attend, exercise sometimes drops off your to-do list. Change your expectations based on the dynamics of the season, says Zrebiec. Accept that you won’t be able to exercise as much as you usually do. Refuse to entertain stress-producing thoughts such as: I didn’t get to the gym this week, or what’s wrong with me. Those self-defeating thoughts feed on each other, creating more stress and unhealthy habits.
Eat, drink and be merry
“There is nothing wrong with having a craving, especially when you’re attending a lot of holiday parties. It’s far better to indulge that craving, in a modestly controlled way, than to hold back and, as a result, feel deprived and possibly angry,” says Zrebiec. The key is moderation.
Get off the holiday merry-go-round
Is it really necessary to attend every single party and family get-together? Weeks filled with overextending yourself can wear you down physically and emotionally. Toss aside the should dos and make a list of activities that bring you comfort and good feelings. The result? You may start to enjoy the most wonderful time of the year.