When the Holidays & Stress Go Hand in Hand…

When you’re a kid, the holiday season is the best time of the year – all the lights and presents and sparkle.

Then life happens, and the stuff of joy too often morphs into stress – all the presents to wrap, food to cook; all the traveling; all the loaded or awkward family conversations. But stress does more than just put a damper on your holiday spirit. If it’s part of a chronic – ongoing – pattern, it can become a real drag on your health.

What we experience as stress is a response to danger, actual or perceived. The body reacts accordingly, so it can either fight the danger or run away. Adrenaline is released into the bloodstream. The heart speeds up, pushing blood to the vital organs. Cortisol is released. Breathing speeds up as airways in the lungs open wide. More oxygen is sent to the brain. Senses sharpen. Glucose and fats are released into the bloodstream for extra energy.

While this is great for real emergencies, it’s not so great when it’s constantly being activated. For one, chronic stress fuels inflammation – the common denominator of gum disease and a host of systemic conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and stroke. Under chronic stress, your gums may become redder, sorer, and may bleed or recede. Eventually, this gingivitis can progress to periodontitis, at which point bone and tooth loss become a real possibility.

It’s not just the physiological response that makes stress such a risk factor for periodontal disease. Harmful habits can play a role, as well. Think coping mechanisms such as smoking and eating more sugars and simple carbs, or just how easy it is to let hygiene and other self-care go by the wayside as we try to cope with difficult feelings.

One of the most common unhealthy habits is bruxing – clenching and grinding the teeth, often during sleep. Over time, bruxing can wear down tooth structure and destroy enamel, leaving the teeth more vulnerable to decay. It can also lead to headaches, neck and shoulder pain, and dysfunction of the TM joints, the hinges that let your mouth open and close. While night guards can be a big help – protecting the teeth and cushioning the bite – stress management is often a necessary part of dealing with bruxism.

Successfully coping with holiday stress is really no different than dealing with stress at any other time of year. Largely, it’s a matter of mindfulness and self-care that helps a person remain resilient and able to deal with the curveballs life invariably throws. Here are some ideas that can help make your holidays more joyful, less Grinchy:

  • Put on your favorite holiday CD and sing along. Loudly.
  • Take a stroll. It may be a little chilly, but a little sunshine will boost your mood.
  • Set aside 30 minutes to read and sip your favorite warm holiday drink.
  • Spend a little time each day reflecting or meditating on all the good things in your life.
  • Exercise. Yoga is especially good for both physical activity and countering stress.
  • Eat healthy, whole foods that make your body feel good.
  • Take some time to appreciate the holiday decorations in your neighborhood.
  • Write. Putting your thoughts and feelings on paper can be both cathartic and productive.
  • Disconnect. Shutting off your smartphone, TV, and computer for a day or even a few hours can help provide clarity.

Finally, while you may want to do everything to make the holidays special, do cut yourself some slack. Overscheduling is a big trigger of stress, so recognize when you need to say “no” to an invite or obligation. No one can do it all. Instead focus on what’s most important: making memories with those you love.

Happy holidays from all of us here at Fremont Natural Dentistry!

Image by Tambako The Jaguar, via Flickr