December 18, 2014

How Holiday Stress Impacts our Brains.

Kelly Skinner 1

Happiness during the holiday season: is it an oxymoron?

Deck the Halls and Joy to the World are all good, but then there are the daily to do lists: gift shopping, cookies, cards, tree trimming, holiday parties—and just like that, a season meant to be full of peace turns into a chore.

Luckily, even if you are feeling like the Grinch instead of little Cindy Lou Who, shattering unhappiness is always (always!) accessible.

The answer starts in the most complex organ of our body: the brain.

When Dr. Wolfram Schultz at Cambridge University in England studied the links between dopamine and the expected reward system that follows (such as getting praise for the holiday cookies we made), he found that dopamine levels rise when we want something (like checking off all the boxes on your to-do list).

But too much dopamine and your brain begins to go into overdrive, creating neuro-pathways of craving that lead to excessive indulgence in anything from holiday cookies to one too many glasses of eggnog, which is why at the end of the season we see so many people rushing to the gym and making a list of resolutions.

Want to steer clear of a dopamine dump in the brain?

Here are five simple tips to keep you calm, cheerful and peaceful this holiday season.

1. Kill the Green Goblin.

Comparing yourself to others is dangerous, creating a snowball effect of wanting that can easily cause that dopamine to overflow. The green goblin of envy has stolen holiday cheer for aeons.

The best antidote? Gratitude. As the Zen sage Meister Ekhart told us, “If the only prayer you ever said in your whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would be enough.”

Make a list of what you are thankful for and how much you have to share with your loved ones. Know that it is enough. You are enough. It’s not about how much money you spend or how many gifts you give, it’s about how you choose to show up and contribute.

2. Skip the List.

The messy apartment, the dirty dishes, the laundry, the meals, the wrapping—phew. Here’s a secret: It will get done. In this case, the saying, “don’t sweat the small stuff” is spot on. Dropping the need to make a list for every category in your life will allow your dopamine receptors to take a break so other, happier neuro-firing can take place—like the release of serotonin, which helps us sleep, alleviates depression and gives that groovy feeling that all is right with the world, even if the list doesn’t get done.

3. Indulge in Soul Food.

Colleen Pierre, co-author of Jerry Baker’s Giant Book of Kitchen Counter Cures, has told us of the very poignant effect food has on mood, from the sleepiness we feel after a tryptophan-laden Thanksgiving to the wild fact that the right fats can ease our perception of pain.

This holiday, try skipping the drinks and foods that make you high (caffeine, chocolate, wine), because the law of gravitational force—which also applies to your mood—says that what comes up, must come down.

The very best way to ease holiday turmoil around food, though, is to indulge in Soul Food. Soul Food is just as important (if not more so) than actual food. Soul Food is what makes up your life and gives it meaning: your relationships, your exercise regime, your career, your spirituality, your friends. Focus on what feeds the nectar of your soul, and fill up on that.

4. Tithe, Listen and Give Gifts with Meaning.

Research has shown that giving a gift of as little at $5 can improve mood. We tend to focus on gifts for family and friends, but what about finding a Central American orphanage that might like the gift of $25 to buy soccer balls? How about a Rwandan hospital looking for donations for their overflowing medical centers? Volunteering as well as tithing can take you away from the chaos of the holiday season and bring you back to what’s most important: giving.

You can also give in non-material ways: share your talents and passions with others, lend a hand to a friend in need or simply listen. And when you give physical gifts, consider the meaning behind them. Give from your heart: a massage, a journal or even an afternoon walk. Small gifts with big meaning are truly magical.

5. Expect Less.

It’s no wonder one of 2014’s hottest books was The Expectation Hangover by Christine Hassler. We tend to be a culture of over-expectation. Goals are important, but expectation wreaks havoc on our nervous systems. Why? Primarily because we are happiest when we are living in what spiritual masters have called The Now.

By expecting less of yourself and others you are not letting anyone off the hook, you are affording yourself some wiggle room, to be human, to make mistakes.

You just had a family fight, the Christmas tree fell over, an ornament broke, the cookies burned, the presents aren’t wrapped yet, your mother in law is nuts. Shrug it off. Laugh. None of us are perfect, and that’s what makes us each uniquely flawless and authentically lovable and completely relatable. Supporting that truth is what coming together as a family is all about.

Here’s to a joyful, peaceful holiday!




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Author: Kelly Skinner

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Author’s Own


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