holiday stress
Mental & Emotional Health

Science Reveals Why Holiday Stress Can Impair Your Brain – and How You Can Beat It!

Here we go again — the time of year that gave birth to the phrase ‘I need a vacation from my vacation’. With the seemingly endless parade of work parties, family gatherings and social engagements, it’s no wonder why nearly 70% of people report feeling increased levels of stress during the holiday season.

But what exactly is stress; how does it impact your brain; and is there anything you can do to avoid it this year?

Let’s dive-in and take a look …

STRESS: IT’S ALL IN THE HEAD

To understand stress and its impact on the brain, we first need to differentiate between emotions and feelings:

  • Emotions are the physical sensations set off by the body in response to different events. Things like a racing heart, tingling skin and butterflies in the stomach are all emotions.
  • Feelings, on the other hand, are the mental interpretation of physical sensations. Things like passion, embarrassment and pride are all feelings.

Typically, emotions come first. When we encounter a new situation or event, our body quickly responds by producing appropriate physical sensations. Soon afterward, we begin to consciously assess the world around us, interpret what the emotions represent, and select a relevant feeling. Importantly, selecting a feeling will usually trigger the release of associated chemicals into the brain.

For instance, imagine that a large spider suddenly jumped into your lap. Your body would respond almost immediately with involuntary sensations like dilated pupils, rapid heart rate and quick breathing. Very quickly afterward, you would interpret the event, assign these bodily changes to the spider and select a relevant feeling. If you were to select the feeling of fear, this would trigger the release of chemicals into your brain that might focus your attention and mobilize your muscles. If, on the other hand, you were to select the feeling of excitement, this would trigger the release of different chemicals into your brain that might produce smiling and laughter.

I mention all of this to emphasize that stress is a feeling, not an emotion. Stress is a mental interpretation of otherwise benign bodily sensations that can initiate the release of specific (and potentially harmful) chemicals into the brain.

So, what are these chemicals … and what is their impact?

STRESS: A TALE OF TWO CHEMICALS

When you select the feeling of stress, the first important chemical to be released is norepinephrine. This chemical works by flooding into and dampening the function of the prefrontal cortex — a brain region that allows for calculated, rational and controlled thought.

The second important chemical to be released is cortisol. This chemical works by flooding into and damaging the cells within the hippocampus — a brain region that allows for the formation of new memories.

When stress is sharp and short-term in nature, these chemicals serve a very important purpose. For example, imagine that a snarling bear was running towards you at this very moment. In this instance, you wouldn’t want to waste precious mental energy pondering the merits of this article: you’d much rather become focused on and reactive to the bear. In other words, you would want to shut-off deep, calculated thinking — which is exactly what happens when norepinephrine hits the prefrontal cortex.

Also, in order to be better prepared for any similar type of threat in the future, it would be important to form a deep and lasting memory of this event. Much like heavy weightlifting causes micro-tears in your muscles that come back stronger once they heal, the damage caused by cortisol during stress leads to the release of proteins which bolster and strengthen the hippocampus. This is why we typically have such vivid memories of stressful events.

Unfortunately, problems begin to arise when feelings of stress are extended and drawn out. The longer cortisol remains in the brain, the more damage that occurs. Given enough time, cortisol can begin to completely kill cells within the hippocampus, making it incredibly difficult to form new memories — or even to access old ones. This is why stressful holidays from your past may seem like a blur, or why they may be difficult to piece together in your mind after the fact.

Similarly, the longer norepinephrine interacts within the prefrontal cortex, the more reactionary individuals become. If you’ve even considered yourself to be irrational, hyper-sensitive or absent-minded during the holidays, it’s likely the result of a prolonged stress response.

So, now that we know what’s going on, is there anything we can do to combat the stress response?

3 APPROACHES TO STRESS

The Physical

Physical emotions precede mental feelings. This means one approach to beating stress this holiday season is to target the body. Deep breathing, exercise, progressive muscle relaxation — these are all effective strategies for altering the chemicals in your body and minimizing any undesired physical sensations.

One useful strategy in particular is ‘the squat’. The next time an unwanted stress response arises, place your back against a wall and sit in a deep squat for 60-90 seconds. As you struggle to maintain this position, your muscles will burn off excess cortisol while you begin to breathe deeply. This ‘exhaustion’ will alter the sensations in your body and allow you to more easily select a new, more desired feeling.

squat against a wall

The Mental

Feelings are selected according to how we interpret physical sensations. This means a second approach to overcoming stress is to target the mind. Meditation, mindfulness, exposure therapy — these tried-and-true practices can all help you re-frame challenging situations, so you can successfully modify any negative interpretations.

Once you re-label a formerly stressful sensation as exciting, intriguing, or even funny, the chemical response within your brain will change accordingly. And best of all, the incredible power of interpretation will always be yours to manage and control.

Prediction

When you think back to previous holidays, are there any recurring moments or events that always seem to trigger your stress response? Perhaps it’s visiting with a certain relative, planning for a specific gathering, or attending a particular work event?

The simplest and most effective way to prevent a predictable stress response is to simply avoid any situations you already know will trigger it. Granted, this strategy is not always feasible — and it will do nothing to help you develop the valuable skills and strategies you can use to combat unpredictable stressors in the future — but in a pinch, it’s a quick-fix that could literally mean the difference between a memorable and a forgettable holiday season.

Now get out there and enjoy the most wonderful time of the year!

Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath is a renowned cognitive neuroscientist with an expertise in human learning, memory, and brain stimulation. His company LME Global is a mission-based company aiming to serve teachers and business professionals through applied brain science. You can visit lmeglobal.net to learn about his popular neuro-courses, and to reserve a copy of his new book “Stop Talking, Start Influencing: 12 Ideas from Brain Science to Make Your Message Stick”.

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