Holiday Blues

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The holiday period comes with lots of joy and fun – but for many, plenty of anxiety and stress, too, brought on by hosting festivities, travel delays and bickering relatives.

In fact, different areas of the brain activate when dealing with various types of stressors, biologist Seena Mathew of the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas wrote in the Conversation. She offers some solutions, too.

For example, travel-related frustrations, such as plane delays, turn on the brain’s hypothalamus, a key region regulating the autonomic nervous system.

When under stress, it releases stress hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine, leading to increased heart rate and feelings of irritation.

Doing deep breathing exercises can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system – also known as the “rest and digest” system – to foster relaxation and reduce frustration.

Meanwhile, family gatherings come with a whole other set of issues, particularly when dealing with conflicting personalities or unresolved parental issues. The anterior cingulate cortex, responsible for conflict resolution, activates during these uncomfortable interactions.

Mathew suggests taking short breaks from intense situations allows individuals to gain a fresh perspective and a clearer mindset in resolving disputes.

And for those spending the holidays alone, feelings of loneliness or isolation can arise. This turns on the brain’s default network, including the amygdala, which processes negative emotions to stimuli.

Physical exercise, which has been proven to improve mood, diminish frustration, and alleviate irritability, is the order of the day here. Physical activity helps in releasing stress and tension, while aerobic exercise reduces feelings of depression by influencing connections within the amygdala. Going to the gym or parks for these activities helps enhance the experience by fostering a sense of connection with like-minded people.

Mathew acknowledges that this might be a lot, but coping with stress is a gradual process that works differently for every individual.

“It will include trial and error and open-mindedness, but if you focus on identifying your triggers and adapting your own coping strategies, it will almost certainly get better with time,” she said.

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