Chuck, the holidays might be joyous for most, but they are one of the most stressful times of the year for me. I can’t go into details, but can you tell me what you do to minimize your yuletide anxiety? – Jerry F., Billings, Mont.

Thomas Plante, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Spirituality and Health Institute at Santa Clara University, as well as an adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, wrote an excellent article for Psychology Today titled “7 Strategies to Survive Christmas with the Relatives.”

I’m certain that the mere mention of the title prompts many readers to want to scurry online and find the wisdom therein. That search-and-find desire is prompted by the heightened levels of anxiety that we all feel during December. In short, despite the amazing festivities and the reason for the season, Christmastime can be one of the most stressful times of the year.

Of course, stress and anxiety are not partial to any season of the year or life. A few years ago, a study by the American Psychological Association discovered that:

  • Fifty-four percent of Americans are concerned about the level of stress in their everyday lives.
  • Sixty-two percent of Americans say work has a significant impact on stress levels.
  • Fifty-four percent of workers are concerned about health problems caused by stress.
  • Forty-five percent of workers list job insecurity as having a significant impact on work stress levels.
  • One in 4 workers has taken a mental health day off from work to cope with stress.
  • Seventy-three percent of Americans name money as the No. 1 factor that affects their stress level.
  • Two-thirds of Americans say they are likely to seek help for stress.

Stress can be caused by just about anything – relationships, moving, health, finances, employment, retirement or just trying to figure out what to buy everyone for Christmas without breaking your bank.

Some stresses are triggered by outside sources; others we bring on ourselves. Some stresses are good, such as a wedding or a promotion. One recent study even showed that a manageable or mild amount of stress related to an active social life might aid in the reduction of cancer growth. Other stresses are bad, such as the loss of employment, security or a loved one.

Dr. Don Colbert cites a June 2005 Wall Street Journal article about how to live longer, which concludes that excessive stress “kills” people as much as poor health habits, such as smoking, drinking alcohol and not exercising.

Similarly, a multiple-year study at the University of London showed that unmanaged stress is six times more predictive of cancer and heart disease than smoking, high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. And in a Mayo Clinic study of people with heart disease, stress was the strongest predictor of future cardiac problems.

That is why Dr. Kenneth Cooper, founder of The Cooper Institute and famed “Father of Aerobics,” spoke for most other health professionals when he included stress control among the constituents for building a better you:

“There are six components of wellness,” he said, “proper weight and diet, proper exercise, breaking the smoking habit, control of alcohol, stress management and periodic exams.”

Colbert recommends particular practices to lower bad stress:

  • Mindfulness – Letting go of present negative thoughts and finding something to enjoy or think positive about in the present moment.
  • Reframing – This is learning to see the past and the future in a more positive light. Even when negative things happen, we can take those times and turn them around for the good. Reframing gives us the power to see the past and future in light of what good can come from them.
  • Laughing – Laughter is still the best medicine. More than 2,000 years ago, the Good Book said, “A merry heart is good medicine, but depression drains one’s strength.” Studies have shown that laughter lowers stress hormones and increases feel-good hormones.
  • Forgiving – When you are hurt, intentionally or unintentionally, offering mercy (undeserved favor) and forgiveness (pardonable favor) will lower stress. To the contrary, harboring bitterness actually produces stress chemicals within us.
  • Practicing stress-reducing habits – No one is a master of stress. Practice makes perfect. Practice the above techniques, as well as others, such as deep breathing, sitting in serene locations, working on behavioral modifications and choosing to maintain a positive and optimistic attitude.

Most of all, when it comes to stress, remember you’re not alone. The best of the best have faced some of the most anxious moments and come out the other side.

As Mother Teresa once wisely said, “I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that he didn’t trust me so much.”

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