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Day 1: Get out in the winter wonderland
When you've got five out of seven nights booked for holiday gatherings, chances are exercise isn't on the schedule. Change plans with friends or family one night to go for a walk or a skate or even hit the toboggan hill together. "Being physically active helps lower cortisol [a.k.a. the stress hormone], helps maintain our blood pressure and releases endorphins," says Dr. Bryn Hyndman, medical director at Vancouver's Qi Integrated Health. "So it actually helps us manage stress and feel better." Getting outside will give you a breather from all the togetherness; plus, as Dr. Hyndman points out, "being outdoors in nature is shown to be calming."
Day 2: Unplug and be present
Does an email alert from work or a text from your mother-in-law send your anxiety soaring? It's time to unplug. A 2011 Swedish study connected high-frequency cellphone use to an increased risk for reporting mental health issues, including symptoms of depression. Schedule time for checking emails, then power down for the rest of the day so you feel present at holiday gatherings, suggests Marc Woods, registered psychologist at Genest MacGillivray Psychologists in Halifax. "Treat it as a task to be accomplished, like brushing your teeth," he says. "Once it's done or scheduled for later, you don't have to sit around worrying about it." If separating from your phone is a struggle, start with small goals, like checking your emails and messages for just 15 minutes after every meal.
Day 3: Do a perspective check
A holiday to-do list can cover a lot of ground: Buy a present for your spouse, pick up cranberries, book a flight to your parents' place. However, when the list is long, we tend to treat all items like top priorities and feel like failures if we don't complete our tasks. Toronto relationship expert Kimberly Moffit recommends ranking your to-do list. "How important are these tasks really?" she asks. "If you don't get some things done, it's not the end of the world." Moffit suggests to-do apps, such as Todoist or Nozbe, which enable you to colour-code tasks by importance. "Knowing you've accomplished your top priorities can help you put away your work."
Day 4: Make a handmade gift
Creating something that requires focus—such as knitting a scarf or crafting homemade cards—is a gift for your mental health. "That kind of activity can stimulate a pattern of consciousness we call flow, or deep focus, where we are completely present in what we're doing," says Dr. Hyndman. "We're not thinking about the past, we're not thinking about the future. There is a calm and joy that comes with that." And that's just what the season calls for.
Day 5: Sleep soundly
If you're having a not-so-silent night, keep a pen and paper beside your bed to record what's on your mind. "When things are written down, there's less mental stress because you don't have the fear of forgetting them," says Dr. Hyndman.
Day 6: Take a breath
Feeling frazzled after a busy day of work and shopping? Take 10 minutes to breathe deeply and with awareness. "When you have stress, you have more muscle tension, your heart rate increases and your breathing gets more shallow," says Woods. "When you're breathing deeply into the lower part of your lungs, you get more oxygen, it helps slow your heart rate and it induces a more relaxed state." An app such as Breathing Zone can coach you along.
Day 7: Start the slow cooker
Sugary treats can cause blood-sugar spikes that lead to headaches and drops in energy. "That can really compound anxiety in people who are already feeling stressed," says Dr. Hyndman. Instead, start your day by filling a slow cooker with healthful veggies, lean meat and whole grains so you can come home to an easy dinner rich in fibre and protein that will keep your blood sugar—and your mood—stable.
Day 8: Be a kid at Christmas
Nervous about feuds at a family gathering? Play with the kids. "Spending time around children can be helpful in dissolving tension," says Dr. Hyndman. One study has shown that fathers get a burst of oxytocin—a feel-good hormone—when they play energetically with their kids, while mothers get a similar increase when they're very affectionate with their children.
Day 9: Try a soothing supplement
If your holidays are more hairy than merry, Dr. Hyndman suggests trying the supplement L-theanine, naturally found in green tea. "It may help support levels of GABA, serotonin and dopamine [neurotransmitters that are "feel-good" hormones] in the brain, which have a calming effect," she explains.
Day 10: Call a lifeline
When you're feeling overwhelmed, speak to someone supportive. "If something is bothering you, talk to somebody who will listen to you and help you feel understood and validated," says Woods. "Sometimes, the person will also help you problem-solve." A 2009 University of Michigan study found that bonding helps increase women's progesterone levels, in turn decreasing stress and anxiety.
Day 11: Schedule quiet time
Before another overwhelming day or week, spend five minutes looking at your schedule and book a few quiet breaks, suggests Dr. Hyndman. If something's not urgent, see if it can be put off until January. "Part of planning ahead is making sure you take care of yourself," she says. And knowing where that next moment of Zen is coming from will help get you through the more stressful moments.
Day 12: Change your tune
Listening to carols not only helps get you in the Christmas spirit but also helps you relax. Studies show music can lower heart rates and reduce stress. Jennifer Buchanan, a music therapist in Calgary, says slow minor-key songs help relax the brain (think "What Child Is This?"), while instrumental versions can help with productivity at work, but the best calming music comes down to personal preference.
For more stress-free advice, check out these seven tips to beat the stress of the holidays.
This story was originally part of "The 12 Stress-Free Days of Christmas" in the December 2015 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!