Learning with laughter

Tips to Reduce Holiday Stress

December 03rd, 2009

Stress Management

Humans can cope with sudden stress but are less well adapted to prolonged stresses? Stress is now considered one of the leading health problems and contributes to 90% of visits to the doctor. Common complaints are:

• Muscle tension in jaw, face, shoulders and hips.

• Headaches in temples and behind the eyes,

• Feelings of anxiety and irritability

• Problems sleeping

• Gastrointestinal upset

Causes of Stress:


• LIFE IS 10% WHAT HAPPENS TO US AND 90% HOW WE REACT TO IT. There is no right or wrong way to react to stress. The trick is finding healthy ways to handle stress

Research continues to indicate a positive correlation between a person’s ability to cope with stress and the incidence of disease.

Have you heard of the triune brain?


The frontal lobe plays a role in logic and sound judgement: The temporal lobe with hearing and smell, parietal lobe processes touch and spoken language, the occipital lobe seeing and reading.

The limbic system mediates emotion and stores memories. All memory begins with Sensory Stimuli. Senses provide continual feedback to the brain on the status of what is going on inside and outside the body’s environment. For example inside if the body is anxious excited or stressed the heart rate, breathing, internal temperature, muscle tension will increase. We can experience visceral feedback – gut feeling. Hence emotions often referred to as …She had “Butterflies in her stomach” before her job interview or “Always rely on you gut instinct”

Outside stimuli are through senses: What we see, hear, taste, touch and smell.

The brainstem is seat of survival and the Fight OR flight Response

This is how stress works …Mind detects a threat.

The threat triggers a response by sending a signal to limbic system where the Amydala, the smoke detector for danger… alerts us to take action. A signal is then sent to the hippocampus where all memories are stored, and then to the Reptilian Brainstem which signals the body to freeze, fight or flee. The adrenal glands then produce adrenaline to increase your metabolism, dilate blood vessels, increase your heart rate, and send extra glucose into your blood stream to serve as a quick source of energy for this action to happen.

Have you noticed that people can often seem irrational and say silly hurtful things when overstressed? Reason for this irrational behaviour is when we are overstressed, the frontal lobes where your logical thinking is performed goes OFFLINE and the Animal Defences Survival comes on line instead.

In summary to quote Psychologist Van der Kolk “The imprint of trauma or being over whelmed, is in the limbic emotional system and brainstem, not in our thinking brains.”   This makes us human and explains why people who are under stress seem irrational. They are unable to think straight!



Here are the 8 tips to help you manage stress:

1) Attitude- keep a positive attitude –become aware of own inner dialogue daily as well as how you communicate. If always negative convince yourself as well as everyone around you (picture)

Focus on successes not failures- focus on process rather than results

2) Realistic expectations-set priorities- write a ‘to do’ list-tackle easy jobs when low on energy

3) Relaxation techniques; Learn deep breathing techniques like alternate nostril breathing and practice whenever you feel rushed or stressed or any breath based exercise like Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi and qigong My personal favourite is mindfulness. Pat Ogden (psychologist) says:

• Mindfulness is a contemplative state of perception : its goal is to observe “what is” rather than attempting to manipulate or change experience

• To be mindful is to focus on internal states rather than external events and to attend to present experience rather than past or future – “ right here , right now”

• Mindfulness allows difficult thoughts, feelings, emotions just to be there, just observing without having to solve or change them.

• Mindfulness engages the prefrontal cortex thereby reducing arousal

4) Exercise regularly –stretch daily to decrease muscle tone –exercise for at least 30 minutes 4 times a week- When you exercise you feel in control-a key defence against stress. Also don’t time yourself and compare your time to other people, otherwise this becomes another stressor!

5) Eat Healthy- 8 glasses of water a day- 8 servings of fruit and vegetables a day- maintain a balanced diet… too much sugar lowers immune system amongst other things

6) Sleep – 8 hours of sleep a day is recommended- don’t stay in bed to avoid problems- you’ll only get up with more stress! Under 4 hours sleep contributes to high blood pressure

7) Avoid smoking and alcohol-avoid excess caffeine, sugar, fats-all put strain on your body’s ability to cope with stress.

Stressed people are often seen with a “large” coffee in their hands in the morning just to get jump start!

8) Be kind to yourself- take short breaks to help re-energize and re-focus (could be just taking 10 breaths every hour. – Learn to say NO – take time each day to do something you love.

If you are burnt out and stressed, you cannot be creative and on top of your game -also if you can’t stand yourself how will anyone else stand being around you either!

Bonus: Four of my favourite ways to reduce ‘Holiday Stress’

1) “Best things in life are free”  On Christmas Eve write love notes on a tiny piece of paper for family members. Hide notes in pockets, drawers, inside kitchen cupboards on bottles, under pillows, or in purses/wallets. Stick notes onto mirrors in house and cars..anywhere least expect to find one! Be creative!

2) Like yourself- stop the inner critic and try to accept yourself just as you are. “Do your best, forget the rest!” overwhelmed with stress this can be hard to do… Start to sway slowly from side to side… stand with feet apart, eyes closed, breathe deeply, tongue tip on roof of mouth, teeth are apart and check muscles to see if they are relaxed. Take a slow, deep breath in and hold it for 3 seconds, pause and let it out for 5 seconds. Feel the shoulders relax and tension leave the body. The body remembers how good it felt when mother rocked you to sleep.

3) Stretch arms overhead and smile and think of: three things you like about yourself or someone you adore, fun activities you enjoyed as a child; people who make you laugh or made positive difference in your life. In no time you will feel fun and free.

4) Alternate Nostril Breathing – In this breathing technique inhale for count of 4; hold breath for 16 and exhale for 8.

Using right hand put index finger between eyebrows and

• Inhale through left leftnostril closing right rightwith thumbthumb to the count of 4

holding Hold breath and close both nostrils with 3rd finger and thumbthumb  for the count of 16

• Exhale through right right nostril closing left left nostril with 3rd finger for the count of 8

•  Inhale through right rightnostril keeping left leftnostril closed with 3rd finger for the count of 4

• holding Hold breath and close both nostrils with 3rd finger and thumbthumb  for the count of 16

• Exhale through left left nostril keeping right right nostril closed for count of 8


This Story is a good example of the triune brain at work. I am a speaker for the Arthritis society and during a talk I embarrassed myself by saying something that could have been interpreted in two ways. You may remember that the hippocampus stores past events that happen to us. It can be triggered in the present to give the person similar feelings as if the “there and then” is actually “here and now”. The brain does not know the difference.

I was standing in a room full of 50 people giving a speech on osteoarthritis. Everyone in the room that day heard me say clearly that one of the early signs is stiffness in the morning that can last for ½ an hour.

Immediately those words left my mouth I scanned the audience to make sure I was making a good connection. It seems I had done so with some of the men because they were smirking. The parietal and frontal areas of my brain realised quickly what they might be thinking! My face and palms started to feel hot, my heart beat faster and my mind started to blank out. The only voice I could hear suddenly was one chirping inside my head “Why are you still standing here”. I remember wanting a big black hole to open and swallow me instantly!! Then I remembered to take a few deep breathes my mind cleared and I was able to continue my talk. However at the end of the speech one of the ‘smirking’ men came over and said “Cathy, Great speech, however I enjoy being stiff in the morning!”

Ever since then when I talk about early signs of Arthritis, I feel my face redden and my heart rate go up. I am careful to say it is the muscles and joints which can feel stiff for half an hour in the morning!

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