The holidays may be the most wonderful time of the year, yet they can also be among the most stressful. So many social and family obligations on top of day-to-day and work demands can make even the merriest moments seem overwhelming.
The impact of stress on people’s health can vary greatly depending on their gender, age, and life stage. What’s more, stress is a matter of science and perception—and then some.
Stress can be defined as a real or perceived threat to a person’s physiological or psychological well-being. Physiological effects include chest pain, exhaustion, jaw clenching, digestive problems, and weakened immune system, while mental symptoms can include anxiety and depression.
“Stress is your unregulated negative emotional response to your perception of life’s events,” says positive psychology practitioner and stress consultant Elaine Sanders-Bruewer, co-founder of the Manitoba-based Stress Experts.
“Is stress in our heads? Yes, your perceptions, thoughts, and attitudes play a major role in your stress. Is stress in our bodies? Yes, you feel your emotions because they are physical. There are instruments to objectively and accurately measure your emotions, your resilience, and your stress. Stress is very real and very measurable. Is stress spiritual? Yes, your ability to be in the present moment and observe and accept life events also plays a major role.”
“Stress is present on all levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual,” Sanders-Bruewer says. “This is because they’re all connected.”
What are some of the factors that affect our response to stress?
Gender is a clear determinant of human health, with traditional sex-specific patterns associated with various physical and mental conditions. (Research is generally lagging when it comes to health conditions among transgender people and those born with an intersex condition.)
Women are more likely than men to report having a great deal of stress. Women are more likely to report physical and emotional symptoms of stress than men, such as headache, feeling as though they could cry, or having an upset stomach or indigestion. Women are also more likely to experience depression, insomnia, autoimmune diseases, and chronic pain.
Men experiencing stress have a higher risk of acquiring infectious diseases and hypertension, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular conditions. Men are also more likely to misuse drugs and alcohol.
Why the differences?
A few reasons help explain why men and women respond to stress differently. Hormones may be one. In reacting to stress, men are more likely to produce adrenalin and cortisol (the “stress hormone”), triggering the “fight-or-flight” response. The impulse to battle or flee a seemingly perilous situation is characterized by physical changes such as an elevated heart rate.
Women under stress can produce adrenalin and cortisol, too, but they also produce oxytocin, a chemical that can enhance bonding and affection for others. This gives rise to the “tend-and-befriend” response, with women seeking out social support as they work to protect their loved ones.
Exposure to stress can begin as early as the prenatal period, while early-life stress in some infants has been associated with greater susceptibility to the effects of stress later in life and the development of stress-related psychiatric disorders.
Puberty plays a role in the stress response. For example, youth aged 15 to 17 have been shown to display higher cortisol levels in response to stress than those aged nine to 13.
In adults, chronic stress can lead to structural and functional changes in the brain that can result in impairments in learning, memory, and decision-making. As people continue to age, stress can contribute to cognitive decline and immune system dysregulation, while the loss of senses such as hearing can interfere with stress perception.
While stress can be challenging to manage at any age, it can get harder as people get older. Physically, the body may take longer to recover from stressful events as people’s heart and lung capacity goes down. A good night’s sleep can help reduce stress, but it’s common for older adults to sleep less soundly, which can lead to higher levels of stress hormones in the brain.
There’s a saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; however, in terms of life experience, the more of it you have, the more stress can take a toll.
Stress that exists throughout the lifespan, such as sustained economic hardship—and cumulative adverse life events (which include death, divorce, being laid off, and trauma, among many others) can significantly hamper physical and mental health.
Cumulative stress across a lifetime increases the prevalence of hypertension, physical disability, pain, chronic diseases, depression, and alcohol and drug use. While it’s not fully understood why this is the case, chronic stress may impair the functioning of the autonomic nervous system.
What’s often overlooked is that positive events can also lead to stress. “Positive and negative life events are inevitable, and both impact your well-being,” Sanders-Bruewer says. “The event itself, whether pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad, is not responsible for your stress. The event just happens. It is your perception of the event that more directly influences your stress.”
“The way you look at the event, also known as your perception or appraisal of the event, is your interpretation of the meaning of the event itself,” she says.
“Stress is not connected to the event so much as it is to your attitude about it. The reason that you believe the event happened, the results that you believe result from it, and your interpretation of the event determine your emotional response to it,” adds Sanders-Bruewer.
Effectively handling stress
No matter where you’re at in life, there are ways to cope with and manage stress—or, as Sanders-Bruewer puts it, to conquer or rise above it.
One way is with emotional regulation: acknowledging rather than denying negative emotions. “Rather than judging, condemning, or worrying about your negative emotions, you can work with them, decreasing their intensity, guiding yourself back to your centre,” Sanders-Bruewer says. “As you bring yourself back to your heart, heart emotions such as peace, calm, ease, and appreciation begin to flow.”
Appraisal is the practice of becoming aware of which filters you look through at the world. “Do you see your life as a threat, filled with negative consequences and trouble? Or do you embrace the challenges of life, see the positive that comes about and the blessings that arise?” Sanders-Bruewer says, “An attitude adjustment is the second key in conquering stress.”
Finally, there’s acceptance. “Being mindful of the present moment and aware of what life is handing you in this moment opens your heart up to accept it,” Sanders-Bruewer says.
To conserve energy and cognitive resources, the stressed brain tends to fall back on old habits over purposeful, deliberative action.
Take action to manage stress
Some helpful strategies to break up routine and enhance mental flexibility include
- mindfulness meditation
- physical activity
- social interaction
- new experiences
Take supplements to help manage stress
Stress triggers the release of the hormone cortisol, which, in excess, can have toxic ramifications on the body and brain. Certain supplements can offset that effect and boost our coping mechanisms. These include
- cannabis—may help manage stress-related symptoms
- Rhodiola rosea—an adaptogen that may help increase the body’s resistance to stress
- ashwagandha—an ancient medicinal herb
- L-theanine—which may help reduce anxiety
- B-complex vitamins—which help strengthen the nervous system and may also help reduce stress
De-stressing during the holidays
Take care of yourself over the holiday season when stressful situations might pop up or you find yourself feeling overwhelmed. Take breaks from group activities—go for a walk by yourself or steal away for some meditation or relaxation breathing. Reach out if you need support. Keep a regular schedule of sleep, meals, and exercise and limit alcohol intake.