Two Ways to Navigate 'Festive Stress'

Mass shootings... health care... the 2020 presidential election.

These are the top stressors for Americans in 2019.

Each year, the American Psychological Association ("APA") conducts a Stress in America survey. The APA published the latest results last month. These three things top the list of stressors for Americans today. More folks today (56%) are stressed about the next election than they were prior to the 2016 election (52%).

The APA's chief executive officer, Dr. Arthur Evans, says it's due to the growing amount of uncertainty in the world.

None of this surprises me. I first studied stress back in 1981 at Carleton College. I launched a project to help students and faculty understand stress (both good stress and bad stress). My senior research project was also about stress and what people can do for a longer, healthier life.

You might have noticed that for the past few years, I've focused on ways to fight stress – including getting better sleep, shutting off your phone, and taking time to meditate. And this time around the holidays is notoriously known for stress.

Now that we're right in the middle of the holiday season, we also have another major stressor – visiting family. Although we love our families, these holiday gatherings are often fraught with stress, unmet expectations, and the aggravations of traveling. Add to that the spirited debates about politics or criticism from that especially nasty relative, and you'll understand why this day kicks off a season of "festive stress."

No matter what amount or types of stress you might face, today's issue is for you. Because even though we can't control big stressors, we can control how we respond to them. The answer? Mindfulness.

Mindfulness is simple in concept, but tricky in practice. It means that you purposely focus your attention on the present moment instead of letting your mind wander. You become aware and accepting of the here and now instead of allowing judgments and stress to distract you.

One opportunity to practice mindfulness at this time of year comes when everyone is sitting around the holiday table. As food is passed out and everyone is ladling out gravy, my friends and family go around the table and take turns talking about things we're grateful for that year. It's a tradition lots of folks follow.

It's also a way to pause and reflect. And it's this expression of gratitude that grounds us.

But there are lots of other ways to incorporate mindfulness this month and every day. Here are a few of my favorites...

1. Extend your gratitude practice to more than a single day.

A small study from the journal Psychotherapy Research in 2018 randomized participants who were seeking mental health care at their university. All three test groups received counseling. But one test group also had to write about their stressful experiences while another test group had to write about gratitude. After the test period, the gratitude group had better mental health scores and continued to report better moods in the follow-up weeks.

But that's not all... The researchers later took some of the participants and had them perform tasks in a functional MRI machine (a scanner that measures how your brain works). When these folks expressed gratitude, the neurons in their medial prefrontal cortex had more sensitivity. This is the same area that works with decision-making – meaning we might be better able to handle stressful situations.

Take this practice of writing gratitude to heart. You can do this in a few ways: You can keep a gratitude journal and write several things you're grateful for every day. You can write a thank-you note every week to someone – even long-lost friends, past mentors, or old classmates. If you're religious, prayer is a good gratitude practice as well.

2. Cut out distractions.

Being mindful while eating also means cutting out distractions.

It's easy to watch television or surf the Internet as we eat, but it sets us up to overeat. When we aren't paying attention to our food, we're more likely to consume extra calories.

One study from Sweden looked at calorie intake based on types of television programs versus reading. Those who watched television ate more food. Worse, if the show wasn't engaging, they ate even more. So turning on the television for some background noise or to combat loneliness will only encourage more calorie intake.

A good solution... listen to music instead. Its calming effect will boost mood levels, which also helps you eat a healthier portion. And while you're at the table with family, be sure to turn off the television and banish phones from the room – focus on conversations instead of screens.

Let's face it – the best way to beat the holiday stress is to hop on a plane and spend the time in Italy instead. But that's not too practical for a number of reasons. So, the next best thing to do is manage your stress with these mindfulness practices. Plus, I have three more tips for mindfulness exercises practices to try out – and you can find them in the November issue of Retirement Millionaire, here. If you aren't yet a subscriber, why not treat yourself today – sign up here.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
December 26, 2019