The holidays can be stressful and stress can take a toll on mental and physical health. Here to discuss staying healthy this holiday season is Dr. Elizabeth Meade, medical journalist and Chief of Pediatrics at Swedish in Seattle:
Is there a connection between stress and health?
There are many studies showing that emotional or psychological stress has negative impacts on our physical health. We don't always understand the pathways by which this happens, but we know that our brains are incredibly powerful and our mental health has a strong impact on the rest of our bodies.
Do doctors see an increase in stress-related health issues this time of year?
The holidays are a wonderful time for many people, but they can be really stressful, too. People feel pressure to spend on gifts and may feel financial stress, we're busy with travel and social engagements which often means we sleep less and eat and drink more, and the darkness can certainly impact stress and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, especially here in Washington.
Social situations with extended family and coworkers can be stressful for some. Any link to our overall health in this way?
Anxiety, including social anxiety, absolutely can have physical effects. It can be linked to gastrointestinal disorders, heart disease, respiratory symptoms, and more. And interacting with coworkers or extended family can cause stress in people even without baseline anxiety. It's important to know what recharges you - do you need alone time, physical activity, journaling; what refreshes you and makes you feel re-energized? Finding those things and relying on them can help save us from turning to food or a glass of wine every time we feel stressed.
Does letting go of anger have a positive impact on health?
Anything that helps us feel more settled, content, and relaxed is beneficial for health. That may mean different things to different people but we know that chronic anger has been linked to obesity, substance abuse, high blood pressure, sleep problems, depression, and many other physical conditions.
What about people with anxiety and depression- why is it important to perhaps take extra care of ourselves around the holidays?
The holidays can be wonderful, and they can also be really difficult for people. For those with underlying anxiety or depression, this is a time of "hyper-comparison" - even more than usual, everyone is posting family photos and travel and gifts and it can feel completely overwhelming to people who feel anxiety about not having a "perfect" life. People may be missing loved ones who are gone around this time, and it can feel really lonely and isolating.
What are some of the hidden risk factors to our health around the holidays?
Travel, especially in the winter, can be a health nightmare. People are in close quarters, a lot of them may be ill with a virus or other contagious illness, and with all the surfaces we touch during travel, germs can be really easily spread. Wash your hands, wipe down surfaces (especially tray tables on airplanes!) and try not to travel if you are ill - if you have to, wear a mask to help protect others. This can also be a time of year when people with heart disease are more susceptible to heart attacks, so pay attention to general healthy habits. Fire is something we also worry about - with dry air, Christmas lights, holiday candles, and fireplaces can all pose an increased risk of home fires. Finally, our sleep can really suffer between evening engagements, more alcohol than usual, stress about money or family, and symptoms of anxiety or depression. Try to focus on good sleep habits, eating a healthy diet (most of the time!), and staying active throughout your day in order to help mitigate some of the holiday junk!