Maybe it was last-minute shopping for the Christmas turkey. Or hearing Little Drummer Boy on the radio for the 71st time.
Whatever first set your holiday heart pounding, your hands sweating and your fingers trembling, your stress level is, in all likelihood, up. It may not level off for a while.
That’s the bad news. The good? There are simple ways to bring it down. When you’re finished, you’ll still have chores and obligations, but also a renewed spirit to deal with them.
Start by putting down your to-do list and your smartphone, neither of which is going anywhere.
“Checking your phone or email is sending us into a high anxiety state,” says yoga studio operator Angela Wagne.
Ditto for well-meaning people who aren’t on your gift list — but they drop in bearing a cellophane-wrapped something for you. We can’t do anything about them, but we can offer one-word, one-minute-or-more ways to establish peace on Earth — your Earth. Here goes:
Inhale through your nose to a count of four or five. Exhale slowly through your nose to the same count.
“When we resist and fight and judge reality, that’s what causes the stress, not the circumstances,” says meditation centre Brother ChiSing, director of a U.S. meditation centre. “Breathing mindfully increases your ability to be aware, to accept and then to make better creative choices in the moment.”
Doing so “opens your heart,” adds assistant centre director Bobbie Perkins. When that happens, it’s “a little easier to deal with people, even family members you don’t like to be around all that much.”
Wagner advises doing this — not phoning a friend, not texting another one — when standing in line, for instance, with armloads of wrapping paper or rib roast. “It relaxes your whole nervous system. You’re getting that extra oxygen, getting rid of your distractions.”
As tasty as gum can be, flavour isn’t what helps relieve anxiety, says Kevin P. Gosselin. He’s assistant dean for research and evidence-based practice at the College of Nursing, Texas A&M University.
“It’s a somatic process, the process of chewing gum to reduce the physiological anxiety we experience,” says Gosselin, who has a doctor of philosophy degree in educational psychology. “Chewing gum is a way we can reduce that anxiety. It provides a tangible outlet — biting down.”
A couple of caveats: Choosing sugar-free will also relieve the stress of anticipating cavities as well as make your dentist happy. And chew doesn’t mean chomp sloppily.
Music has been used as therapy since Plato’s time, but is a lot more accessible nowadays. As for its calming nature, Gosselin says there are two schools of thought.
The first is selecting your own music. The second is choosing music that meets certain criteria: 60 to 80 beats per minute; no voices, only instruments; and no horns, percussion or anything with “a more abrasive tambour,” Gosselin says. In other words, choose piano or string instruments.
“From my research, classical music is typically better at reducing anxiety than self-directed,” says Gosselin, whose studies involved nursing students. “I tend to stick to classics like Bach, Mozart, Haydn.”
Franz Gruber wrote Silent Night, so that might be a good choice. Whether to include Little Drummer Boy, well, that’s up to you.
Specifically, your pets.
“There’s actually work that’s been done that shows primarily if you pet your own dog or cat your blood pressure will lower,” says Bonnie Beaver, a professor of animal behaviour in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University. “It’s more significant if it’s your own. Otherwise, there’s a tension: ‘Is this one going to bite me?’ ”
Research suggests that when you’re stroking an animal, there’s a release of oxytocin, a calming hormone, “which then physiologically helps relieve stress,” she says. In addition, the animals tend to have a corresponding lowering of blood pressure while they’re being petted.
Studies have mostly been done on dogs, including one showing that dog owners who had survived a heart attack were less likely than non-owners to have a second heart attack. The calming influence, though, has been verified with other species as well, says Beaver.
“For me, I have great stress release with a horse and a dog and a cat.”
For an added benefit, after petting your pooch by the crackling fireside, take him for a walk. Fresh air is calming; plus, people are more likely to talk to you, so you’re getting that social component. Do so only if your dog is good on a leash. “If they’re pulling you down the sidewalk,” Beaver says, “that’s not good.”
We tend to live our lives a bit on the hunched side, says Wagner. “We’re hunched over our computer, driving cars, holding the baby, reading your phone.”
Thus, she recommends a couple of yoga poses. Though one takes a little more bottom-scootching than the other, both can be done between trips to the mall or when the in-laws are shouting along with A Christmas Story while it’s on TV in the other room.
For the simpler “cat-cow,” get on your hands and knees. Inhale, dropping your belly, arching your back as you raise your head. Exhale, curve your spine, tuck your belly, let your head drop.
“When you’re rounding it to cat, you’re exaggerating the negative movement” of the hunch,” she says. “The general backbend of cow will reverse some of the negative of rounding forward. You’re releasing some of those tight muscles in your chest, your pectoral muscles and shoulder muscles.
“Your body is meant to be in strong alignment. The way we hold ourselves is a huge part of the way we feel.”
For “legs on the wall” pose, lie on your back facing the wall. Scoot your bottom as close to it as possible, then lift your legs so they’re flush against the wall. Pull your shoulders down and, if you like, grasp your elbows above your head and rest your arms on the floor.
“This relaxes the central nervous system,” Wagner says. “You’re reversing your blood flow. You’re doing it passively. The wall is doing the work for you.”
Stay there for a few breaths, a few minutes, a few stanzas of Twelve Days of Christmas.
“I haven’t found it to take the place of a nap,” she says, “but it’s always written up as one of the most restorative poses.”
Bubbles are fine, but to make the most of your tub experience, be sure you’re generous — as in a cup or two — with the Epsom salt.
Epsom salt, or magnesium sulfate, has been touted as a stress reliever because when the body is stressed, it loses magnesium, which Epsom salt can replenish through the skin.
It’s also been touted on various websites (including empathsolutions.com and Dr. Oz’s Pinterest page) as increasing energy levels.
Of course, you may need to do this before the kids are on holiday break. Or just hand the older set a threaded needle and some popcorn. By the time they tire of stringing the stuff, you’ll be out of the tub and refreshed.