Thursday, December 22, 2011

Managing Stress During The Holidays

Last year, I posted a little tidbit about managing stress during the holidays, recommending to you, my dear readers, that you treat yourselves gently in stressful times. Holiday events with friends and family can be joyous occasions, but for many of us, they can also be laden with stress. The advice to ‘treat yourself gently’ is an aphorism for healthy living I learned from a psychologist who was one of my teachers. The basic meaning is to give yourself space for self care in times of stress, when others are making demands of you and your time. Treat yourself gently – don’t be hard on yourself, give yourself time and space, and above all, pay attention to what you need to feel well.

This year, I return to the topic, with some more recommendations based on what I’ve learned from working with my patients. A large proportion of my patients are stressed out for a variety of reasons. In working with chronic stress, I’ve learned two important lessons from my patients.

1. Stress is not stress is not stress. We all respond to stress in our own unique ways. Some of us become sad, others angry, others fatigued, and others eat when stressed. The variability of own unique responses to stress makes it hard to make general recommendations about stress. There are a whole host of supplements out there that purport to treat stress, including herbs, vitamins, and even minerals, but because stress is so individual, it takes a trained professional to recommend one treatment over another. I’ve found a number of herbs and supplements that help people find relief from stress, but it takes an office visit to determine what’s helpful. For example, l-theanine would help someone who become nervous with stress, but would aggravate someone who responded to stress by becoming fatigued. Similarly, rhodiola might help someone who became fatigued with stress, but worsen symptoms for someone who was irritable or nervous.

Before I move on to the second point, let me interject here to say that supplements don't fully answer the problem of stress. Supplements and medications help people cope with stress, but it’s the changes to their diet and lifestyle that will help keep them healthy in the long run. After all, supplements don’t get rid of stress, they only help us deal with it better. Which brings me to my next point…

2. When treating stress, you can either reduce the external stress or improve your response to the stress. We all know what causes us stress – our jobs, our family, our partner, our parents, schoolwork, the economy, Christmas shopping, our budget, the government… the list goes on and on. Some of these things we have power over and can change, thus reducing our stress. Other things, we have less power over, and so it falls to us to improve our response to the stresses we face. Used properly, herbs and supplements can help us achieve an improved response to stress, but as I said earlier, these are a means to an end, not an end unto themselves. They may relieve symptoms, but in the long run, cannot achieve the resilient mental attitude that comes from exercise, yoga, meditation, tai chi, or other lifestyle practices.

In managing stress, herbs and supplementation require individualized attention, but the lifestyle factors that can help improve our response to stress are applicable to nearly everyone. These sorts of things include regular exercise (and I’m not talking about triathalons), adequate sleep, a healthy diet, meditation, yoga or tai chi. These practices feed our core so that we are able to deal with stresses from a place of strength, not weakness. Encountering stress from a place of strength allows us to deal with it without allowing it to affect us.

A healthy response to stress also takes some mental work – to deal with stress effectively, I find that a person often has to cultivate a resilient mental attitude. We often hear about a positive mental attitude, and while positive thinking is by all means excellent, I find that people who are very stressed are more helped by adopting a resilient mental attitude – one that allows them to deal with the stress, not let it touch them too strongly and then bounce back. There are a wide variety of books for people to read on the topic of dealing with stress, and people have been writing books on the topic of stress management for millennia, though these books did not always deal explicitly with ‘stress management’. The Tao Te Ching and Bhagavad Gita, for example, deal with the topic of how to act wisely and live happily. Within the context that I am writing, I might say that they teach us how to act effectively to deal with stress, and without letting stresses affect us to strongly. Even The Bible (parts of the Old Testament and especially the New Testament) deals with the eternal conflict of how to deal with the stresses we encounter in life. A spiritual practice of whatever tradition speaks to you can be helpful in developing the resilient mental attitude that serves us in time of stress.

I hope this blog finds you some peace during the holiday stresses. As I said last year, be gentle with yourself. Give yourself the space and time you need, despite the demands that others make on you. Additionally, the lifestyle recommendations I made this year can help keep you healthy and stress-free, not only through the holiday season, but throughout the year. And as always, working with a professional, be it an MD, ND, counselor, psychotherapist, acupuncturist, or psychiatrist can be an important step. Building a therapeutic alliance with another person helps to build core strength and resilience.