OP-ED

Finding holiday cheer despite anxiety and grief

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Stress has become part of our “hurry up” society where we are overwhelmed with too much incoming stimulation, especially during the holidays. The season is fraught with a frenzy of activity such as gift purchases, food preparation, social gatherings, decorating and more. It is no wonder so many people feel anxious this time of year. 
Social media and advertisements paint a joyous season of love and laughter. When we feel anger rather than love, sadness instead of joy, we feel guilty. The fight or flight response to stressful events is alive and well for those of us who wait in long lines at the cash registers or set out for an exhaustive search of the perfect gift. 
Anxiety can be a physiological reaction to stress. One may experience high blood pressure or blood pressure spikes, digestive issues, sleep impairment, headaches, shingles or heart palpitations. Unfortunately, some people attempt to ameliorate these symptoms using alcohol or drugs. These solutions prove ineffective as they only mask and likely increase symptoms.
While chasing down presents and attending social gatherings can cause serious stress and anxiety, grief is another feeling prevalent this time of year. For grievers, the holidays serve as a reminder of a permanent loss, such as a family member who has passed and left behind an empty seat at the dinner table. Grief can also be the result of the loss of a job, the end of a marriage, or an estranged relationship with a child.  
During this time of holiday cheer, give yourself permission to tackle stress and grief as they show their untimely heads. Slow down and take a breath. Inhale, exhale and breathe. Shop during the slow shopping times or order online. Forget about the gift-wrapping or the dishes for 20 minutes and use one of the many mindfulness/meditation apps for smartphones. Yoga, short walks and soothing music help too. The use of aromatherapy (particularly lavender), light jazz, salt lamps and an adult coloring book can calm the stress beast very quickly. Stress breaks down your immune system and will wreak havoc. Eat small, high protein food and snacks four to six times a day. Find your favorite method to unwind before bedtime and avoid watching television in bed. If you struggle with falling asleep, stay away from excessive use of wine or sleep aids. 
 If you have lost a loved one, give yourself permission to grieve during the holidays. Those with good intentions may offer advice that can anger you. If this is the year of “firsts” after the death of someone close to you, prepare yourself for the onslaught of tears. It is more than okay to cry. Crying relieves stress, with tears containing cortisol, a self-soothing stress hormone. You may find comfort by honoring a loved one’s memory with stories and a new tradition, such as setting an empty place at the holiday dinner table and raising a glass in celebration of a life well-lived.  
This fast-paced world takes its toll on us both physically and emotionally. It is no surprise that the holidays increase the speed. We are expected to create a magazine version of our holidays, replete with all the trimmings and the perfect gifts. Give yourself the gift of taking care of yourself so you can enjoy the spirit of the holiday season.
 
Mari Dias, EdD., is a professor in the Johnson & Wales University John Hazen White College of Arts & Sciences, a nationally certified counselor by the National Board of Counselor Certification and holds a Fellow in Thanatology from the Association of Death Education and Counseling.

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