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Jan 19

December 14 Stress

Welcome to the most wonderful time of the year, with the kids jingle-belling, and everyone being of good cheer. I’m sure that your heart is light because from now on all your troubles will be out of sight.

According to our popular Christmas songs, we’re supposed to be joyful and merry, dreaming of a white Christmas, and rocking around the Christmas tree at the Christmas party hop.

Is that how you’re feeling this holiday season? No, then why not and what to do about it.

The holiday season brings the expected holiday festivities, but all too often brings unwelcome guests — stress and depression. In addition to the time demands of the holidays — parties, shopping, baking, cleaning, and entertaining, the holiday season can create financial hardships given today’s continued economic uncertainty and strained family relationships due to many and various family relational factors.

Stress isn’t going anywhere; it’s been plaguing us since the dawn of humankind. The stress system is our bodies’ response to danger or the fear of danger, it is designed to protect us, and ensure our survival.

In the 21st century, our daily stressors aren’t as dangerous as the one’s our ancestors faced as they roamed the East African savannahs, but our responses to them are the same.

The stress response is designed to get our muscles moving as quickly as possible and out of harm’s way and to solve problems that last for seconds, not for days, weeks, or even months. Our ancestors, when suddenly faced with a saber-toothed tiger, had three options: run for their lives, fight and kill the beast, or fight and be killed. Whatever the outcome, their stress was burned through their emergency response and as a result they didn’t suffer from ulcers or were forced to take blood pressure medicine. Luckily, we do not have the short-term stressors our ancestors faced, but our bodies act as though we do when we experience today’s longer-term and potentially more deadly stressors.

Our bodies react to stressful situations in ways you can feel. Stressors cause the body to release adrenaline and cortisol, the so-called “stress hormones, a built-in immediate response to danger. The stress hormones increase heart rate, blood pressure, and rate of breathing. When present over long periods-of-time and not managed properly, high levels of stress can damage our health by causing anxiety disorders, migraines, heart disease, stroke, and joint problems.

The stress response begins with adrenaline, which is released by the hypothalamus, the pie size organ sitting almost in the middle of your head. When your senses detect stress, the hypothalamus reacts by sending signals to the adrenal glands, sitting on top of the kidneys. The adrenal glands respond by secreting hefty amounts of adrenaline into the bloodstream causing our fight – or - flight response.

Short-term, acute stress boosts cardiovascular performance. We often read heroic stories of people performing superhuman tasks in stressful situations such as grandmothers lifting cars to rescue their grandchildren.

But chronic stress dangerously deregulates a system built only to deal with short-term responses. People with have chronic stress may have elevated risk of heart attacks, three times more likely to suffer from the common cold, and suffer from autoimmune disorders such as asthma and diabetes.

Why? According to John Medina, author of the best selling book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, “over the long term too much adrenaline stops regulating surges in blood pressure.” The surges “create sandpaper –like rough spots on the inside of your blood vessels.” Scars develop at the spots, which allow sticky substance in the blood to build up clogging your arteries, continues Medina. A heart attack occurs if the clogging happens in the blood vessels of the heart, and a stroke if it occurs in the vessels of the brain.

In addition to releasing adrenalin, the adrenals also release cortisol, the other “stress hormone,” which is just as powerful as adrenaline. Cortisol has an immediate and negative impact on the hippocampus, which is critical in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory and spatial navigation. The hippocampus is loaded with cortisol receptors, making it particularly responsive to stress signals. Cortisol directly affects the hippocampus by damaging the cells of the hippocampus, and at the very least, hampering the ability to learn and remember. Cortisol also stops neurogensis, the birth of neurons, in the hippocampus, and quite literally, under severe conditions, stress hormones cause brain damage by killing hippocampal cells.

Furthermore, stress can deregulate the immune system. Initially, stress is helpful by activating white blood cells to help fight on the body’s most vulnerable fronts, such as the skin, writes Medina. But chronic stress reverses these effects, decreasing the number of white-blood cells, even killing them. Over the long term, stress ravages parts of the immune system involved in producing antibodies. Together, these can cripple your ability to fight infection. Chronic stress also can cause your immune system to fire indiscriminately, even at your own body.

Why does the human body function in this manner? “Remember the brain is the world’s most sophisticated survival organ”, comments Medina. “Our reaction to stress serves a Darwinian’s purpose, a singularly selfish goal, which is to live long enough to pass our genes on to the next generation. We need a flexible, immediately available, highly regulated stress response system, or we would die. Stress helps us manage the threats that could keep us from procreating,” he posits.

So how does a stressed-out person properly mange the stress of the holiday season and the day-to-day pressures of modern life?

The number one strategy for successfully alleviating stress is exercise. Plato had it right when he wrote some 2,400 years ago, “In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.”

John Ratey, a professor at Harvard Medical School and author of "Spark-The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, maintains our brain developed over 500,000 to 1 million years ago when we were hunter gathers and walking 10 to 14 miles per day. At the same time, our Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), the frontal third of the brain was developing. The PFC, the brain’s executive function center, controls behaviors such as time management, judgment, impulse control, planning, organization, and critical thinking. The PFC plans, directs, and supervises behavior and is responsible for behaviors that are necessary for you to act appropriately, communicate with others, focus on behavior and goals, and maintain social responsibility.

“If you don’t have a physical output for stress, it stays in the body, the symptoms don’t go away, and they lead to more permanent health problems,” says Nora Howley, manager of programs at National Education Association’s Health Information Network. If you’re not a runner, experiment with other forms of exercise. Try Pilates, a Karate class, or take dance lessons. Go for a bike ride, or, at the very least, take a walk.

For those who are unable to be more physically active or if your personality does not lend itself to exercise, undertake meditation and relaxation exercises to minimize stress. Proper breathing from the diaphragm and visualization are proven ways to lower your heat rate.

“We think longevity is about 70 to 75% lifestyle, says Angela-Brooks-Wilson, a geneticist at the B.C. Genome Sciences Center in Vancouver, Canada. That means just a quarter of health aging is the about protection your genes; and up to three-quarter is how you play the hand you were dealt.

Other practices that help to deal and/or relieve stress is listening to music, deep breathing, laughter, exposure to natural light, exposure to indoor plants, and a good romp in the hay.

Not surprisingly, a 2013 study demonstrated that listening to music eased stress. In the study researchers played either classical choral music, sounds of rippling water, or nothing at all for three groups of subjects before making them speak and do arithmetic in front of an audience. Those who listened to the water before performing stayed the calmest, producing the lowest amount of cortisol, which has been associated with type-2 diabetes and heart disease.

In addition, listening to music has been shown to help employees complete tasks quicker and come up with better ideas, especially when the staff chooses the music.

Another everyday activity that will help alleviate stress is deep breathing. Just 3 to 5 minutes twice per day of deep breathing has been shown as one of the best ways to manage stress. Not only does deep breathing reduce muscle tension and emotional stress; it can also temporarily lower blood pressure and heart rate and deliver a quick rush of oxygen to cells.

Furthermore, numerous studies have shown that laughter can reduce stress, improve your immune system, and even relieve pain.

When introduced into the workplace, all of the following have been shown to relive stress in workers and improve productivity. Workers in offices with windows and exposure to natural daylight get an average of 46 more minutes of sleep per night than their windowless colleagues. Having plants in the office has been found to decrease stress and enhance productivity by 12 percent. A satisfying sex life will lover your blood pressure as well as your risk of heart attacks, relieve stress, improve your sleep, boost your immune system, and burn a few calories.

If exercise and meditation-like activities are not to your liking to relieve holiday stress, consider the ten tips from the Mayo Clinic listed below. (

¨ Acknowledge your feelings. If someone close to you has recently died or you can't be with loved ones, realize that it's normal to feel sadness and grief. It's OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can't force yourself to be happy just because it's the holiday season.

¨ Reach out. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events. They can offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others also is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.

¨ Be realistic. The holidays don't have to be perfect or just like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. For example, if your adult children can't come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, emails, or videos.

¨ Set aside differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all of your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others are upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they're feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression, too.

¨ Stick to a budget. Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Don't try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts. Try these alternatives: Donate to a charity in someone's name, give homemade gifts or start a family gift exchange.

¨ Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make your shopping list. That'll help prevent last minute scrambling to buy forgotten ingredients. And make sure to line up help for party prep and cleanup.

¨ Learn to say no. Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can't participate in every project or activity. If it's not possible to say no when your boss asks you to work overtime, try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time.

¨ Don't abandon healthy habits. Don't let the holidays become a chaotic situation. Overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don't go overboard on sweets, cheese, or drinks. Continue to get plenty of sleep and physical activity.

¨ Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm.

¨ Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for a while, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.

Don't let the holidays become something you dread and ruin your holiday season. Instead, recognize your holiday triggers and actively combat them by taking steps to prevent the stress and depression that can descend during the holidays by utilizing some of the techniques mentioned above so you can combat them before they lead to a meltdown.

With a little planning and some positive thinking, you can find peace and joy during the holidays.

To all, happy holidays and the best of everything in a less stressful New Year.



“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.