The Health Risks of Holiday Stress
December is a busy, bustling family time. But for lots of people, it can also be a stressful and disappointing time of year. As a physician, I am well aware that suicide rates are elevated, and lots of patients feel like they just can’t cope with the demands and stress of getting everything done. We need to pay attention to – and deal with – the stress we are feeling because it’s a major factor that can cause deterioration of the body. Let me explain.
In 2009, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn was awarded the Nobel Prize for her work on telomeres. Telomeres are the caps on the ends of chromosomes and they divide again and again, as the cells age, protecting the ends of the cellular material. Eventually, the cells die. Well, Dr. Blackburn did an experiment on two groups of women: One group had healthy children and the other had chronically ill children, which was her marker for chronic stress. She followed these women for a number of years, measuring their telomeres and telomerase, the enzyme involved. What she found was that the group with chronically ill children had telomeres that were equivalent to those of women 10 years older than the control group, who had healthy children and, therefore, less stress. What does that mean? It shows us that chronic stress isn’t simply something that affects us emotionally; it affects us physically, aging us and our organs at a cellular level.
Make It a Silent Night
The takeaway? Come holiday time, we need to be mindful of stress and how it’s wreaking havoc on healthy diets and active choices if we choose to focus our energy on making our family celebrations just perfect. The secret to managing stress is to remember that our holiday celebration isn’t just about the first night of Hanukkah or the ultimate Christmas turkey dinner. It’s not about the destination; it’s all about the journey.
What I remember most from my childhood are the happy times with my mom, baking, cooking and learning to wrap presents. The special warmth and love wasn’t so much about the fancy dinner but rather the anticipation, the planning and the sharing. Yes, the main event was wonderful, but that wasn’t what had the biggest impact on me. What I loved then and what I love to share now with my family is the joy of planning and being together.
Take This Holiday Season Easy
We recently had brunch with my family. I decided to theme it as a pizza party, but not your ordinary pizza party: With the focus on my 21/2-year-old grandson, we made the pie, layering the toppings on a pre-made crust. The joy and the fun came from sprinkling cheese, spreading tomato sauce with the back of the spoon, placing pepperoni just so and then watching the cheese melt in the oven. A party at the kitchen counter, just because. This was so much more meaningful than just gathering together to eat pizza.
So, share the process, enjoy your journey, pay attention to the changing landscape of your family and protect your telomeres from that holiday stress!
Dr. Vivien Brown is a family physician and president of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada.