Mind & Spirit

5 easy ways to relieve holiday stress

By: Astrid Van Den Broek

©iStockphoto.com/Foremniakowski Author: Canadian Living Credits: ©iStockphoto.com/Foremniakowski

Mind & Spirit

5 easy ways to relieve holiday stress

By: Astrid Van Den Broek

Whenever Michele-Renee Charbonneau needs to ease her stress around the holiday, she steps into her sewing studio, sits down at her white Bernina Aurora 440 QE sewing machine, turns on an audiobook and works on patching together a quilt. Her sewing space is a place where the machine’s comforting hum, the book’s gentle cadence and the fabric’s texture can soothe the mind of this mom of three young boys.

"It's like all the stresses and cares just slip away," says Michele-Renee, who lives in Ottawa. "All I have to do is touch the fabric, sew a seam, finish a block and I feel bliss."

While there are many tried-and-true stress-relieving techniques out there, Michele-Renee has tapped into one key secret: You can call on your five senses to ease this season's pressures. While her stress-reliever involves the sounds and textures of sewing, you can tap into the power of tasting, hearing, smelling, seeing and touching to – almost in an instant – get through the harried holidays.

1. Enjoy the power of positive touch

Touch a tennis ball. No, reaching out for the ball itself won’t relieve your stress, but rolling it under your foot or between your upper back and a wall offers a sense of relief from tight muscles. (Better yet, persuade a family member or friend to give you a quick shoulder, temple or foot rub.)

"It’s the power of positive touch," says Dennis Caouette, a registered massage therapist in New Westminster, B.C. "Research shows that massage therapy helps release specific hormones into the body that are connected to relaxation. As massage is performed, it affects the nervous system, which in turn affects your blood pressure and the release of hormones. So it has an effect on the neurological system, the circulatory system and hormone levels."

2. Drink soothing cups of tea

Taste a cup of black tea, says Gina Sunderland, a registered dietitian in Winnipeg. Tea leaves are full of L-theanine, a unique amino acid. "L-theanine has been found to change brain-wave function in areas of the brain responsible for calmness," says Sunderland. "L-theanine is also thought to actually improve mental functioning and concentration while calming us."

Try a mandarin orange or handful of frozen blueberries, strawberries or raspberries. "These foods are all high in vitamin C, which has been found to naturally lower cortisol levels. Cortisol is the hormone responsible for stress and inflammation," says Sunderland. You could also nosh on calming fare such as whole grain bread and pasta. The complex carbohydrates found in these foods boost your serotonin, which helps people relax and even sleep better. "Research shows that common foods we enjoy can actually help calm us," adds Sunderland.

The cortisol conundrum: Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by our adrenal glands when we’re under stress. "Cortisol activates our fight-or-flight reaction, or sympathetic nervous system response," says Bronwyn Hill, a naturopathic doctor in Toronto. "This causes the release of sugars into the blood, increases heart rate and breathing, and suppresses inflammation and immune system activity. It also gives our mental faculties a temporary boost."

Cortisol is also volatile, says Hill, meaning it can spike and plummet rapidly. Relieving stress is one way to lower your cortisol levels, which in turn lowers that buzz or pressure that comes with worry and tension.

Chronic stress triggers longer periods of elevated cortisol; persistently elevated cortisol is a factor in developing conditions such as hypertension, hypothyroidism and insulin resistance, which can lead to excess belly fat.
3. Watch something funny
See an old sitcom. Flip on an episode of Seinfeld or YouTube some Modern Family for a good laugh to combat your tension. A 2011 study of postpartum women, from Kyung Hee University in Korea, found that laughter therapy not only helped fight the new mothers’ fatigue but also alleviated their stress.

If you don’t think your laughter will take your stress to task, try meditating or spend some quiet time daydreaming about your favourite places in the world. A 2011 study from Sydney University found that silent meditation was an effective strategy to deal with workplace stress.

4. Listen to music

Hear some soothing tunes you love. Enjoy the tinkle of spa music? No matter what music allows you to bliss out, have a playlist or CD at the ready during this stressful season. One 2011 study compared two stress-relieving remedies: resting in a chair quietly, and listening to self-chosen calming music via headphones.

Music, concluded the study from the Journal of Advanced Nursing, proved to be the better stress intervention. So plug in your earbuds and let the music take you away, but skip the heavy, pumping, blood pressure–boosting music. (LMFAO, we’re looking at you….) A 2007 study in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback examined college students after they took stressful exams. The study found that listening to self-selected music calmed the students down more than sitting in silence or listening to heavy metal music.

5. Take comfort in pleasing scents
Smell lavender or chamomile. Purple-flowered English lavender is commonly used in aromatherapy, often in tinctures or teas, because it is a trusted remedy for sleep disruption and stress, says Bronwyn Hill, a naturopathic doctor in Toronto. "Lavender helps stimulate gamma-aminobutyric acid receptors in the brain, which are calming transmitters," she says. Indeed, a 2011 study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine examined the role of lavender aromatherapy on volunteers who were having needles administered. Researchers found the scent of lavender lowered the stress levels of the volunteers, as well as the intensity of their pain from the needles.

For quick relief, sprinkle a few drops of lavender essential oil (available at health food stores) onto a tissue and tuck it under your pillow or add some to a diffuser.
"Chamomile is another calming herb to use as an essential oil, but it’s also really nice as a tea," says Hill. She notes that rosemary is another circulatory stimulant, especially in the brain. "It’s best for when you’re feeling mentally fatigued due to chronic elevated stress levels."

Readers shared with us on facebook how they ease stress:
"I walk, especially when I feel that I don’t have time for a walk. I head for the trails in the woods and try to breathe through my nose." – Crosby’s Molasses

"I hit up a yoga class." – Brianne Arnott

"I sit in my soaker tub, a.k.a. 'my lake,' with a good book or magazines and a cup of herbal tea. It’s my little oasis where I can escape and relax." – Vonda-Marie Owens

"I come home, have a bit to eat, read a little and then go to the gym. This brings my thoughts somewhere else other than work." – Pat Libling

"I go on Facebook and listen to classical music on YouTube."– Marsha O’Leary

"Cook!" – Gail Richardson-Losier

"Tea. Blessed tea. Then aggressive house cleaning."- Laurie Anne Miller



This story was originally titled "Fix it in Five" in the December 2012 issue.

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Mind & Spirit

5 easy ways to relieve holiday stress