Your December resolution: Manage your stress

Part 12 in our 12-month series on resolutions for real health improvement

By James Beckerman, M.D., Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic – Cardiology, part of Providence Heart and Vascular Institute

Much has been written about the harmful effects of stress on the heart, the immune system, the digestive system, the reproductive system, the lungs, the muscles – even the skin. But if you ask me, the most devastating effect is the toll that stress takes on your mood and quality of life. Stress darkens the lens through which you view the world, which is the most important determinant of what makes you happy as a person.

Around the holidays, especially, you want that lens to be as merry and bright as possible. Even people who have normal stress levels most of the year can feel their spirits start to dim under the added stress of family responsibilities, financial challenges, dietary temptations, time management issues and the generally excessive expectations of what it takes to create a happy holiday. Managing your stress level at this time of year is an important goal, and it’s the focus of our final resolution of the year. 

Here are some effective tips to help you keep stress under wraps this holiday season.

Avoid your stress triggers

The first step toward a less-stressful holiday is to understand what triggers your stress, and to develop strategies ahead of time to avoid those triggers. Does the financial strain of holiday expenses stress you out? Create a realistic budget and challenge yourself to get creative about sticking to it. Is the prospect of holiday weight gain stressful? Stock up on veggies and nonfat yogurt dips to snack on before stepping out, or to bring to the party. Do family gatherings often turn into confrontations? Find your Zen zone and change the subject around people who push your buttons. Are you stressed about too much to do and too little time? Get better at saying “no.”

Practice your coping strategies

When you start to feel the signs of stress building up – the racing heart, the tension headache, the short temper, the gurgling gut or disrupted sleep – find a healthy way to blow off steam. Different things work for different people: some find it calming to take a walk, some write in a journal, and others practice forms of meditation and relaxation. Here are a few techniques to try: Maintain your balanced lifestyle

If you’ve been working through our 12 resolutions this year, you’ve made it part of your regular routine to exercise, eat a healthy breakfast and get a good night’s sleep, among other things. The holidays will try to knock you out of your routines, but the more you can stick with them, the better equipped you’ll be to prevent and manage stress. Physical activity, in particular, reduces stress and the stress response, and may be the single best way to manage stress. This season, make it a priority to keep up your healthy habits.

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Have a happy, healthy new year – and keep it interesting

Looking back on the 12 resolutions we’ve tackled together over the past year, I hope you can point to a few that have changed your health, and your life, for the better. Simplifying goals into top 12 lists makes them sound easy, but you and I both know that the reality of achieving your health goals can be complex and nuanced. Everyone has a different starting point and different challenges. It’s important to continue to work with your doctor to find the path to good health that works for you. It may take time, but it really is possible to reinvent yourself and become a better, healthier version of who you currently are.

I’m not going to list 12 new resolutions to work on in 2012 – I’m sure you have a few of your own in mind. But I do hope that you’ll continue to practice the healthy habits that we focused on in 2011, because they will benefit you throughout your entire life. If that sounds boring, then I do have one resolution for you: keep it interesting. If your workout routine is getting dull, join a volleyball team, try Zumba or sign up for a fitness class. If you are sick of your daily salad, ask five friends for their favorite salad recipes. If you’re bored with your walks, map out three new routes, listen to podcasts, or bring along a friend. Just as stress can darken the lens through which you view life, so can boredom fog it over in a dull haze. Get out the Windex, clear the view, and make way for a fascinating new year.

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James Beckerman, M.D

In addition to his role as a Providence Medical Group cardiologist, Dr. Beckerman is the author of “The Flex Diet: Design-Your-Own Weight Loss Plan” (Simon & Schuster, 2010). He sees patients at Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic, located at 9427 SW Barnes Road, Suite 498, Portland. For more information about the clinic’s services, call 503-216-0900.