Holidays. They really are the best of times and the worst of times.
The end-of-year holidays are certainly a happy time for most of us, but the stress of the season puts many of us on such an edge that we wish it would all just go away. A recent article published in The Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute Letter confirms that the stress you may be feeling this time of year actually causes your brain to function differently.
According to Dr. Ellen Braaten, Director of the Learning and Intelligence Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, “Because the holiday season often requires us to keep track of and pay attention to a greater number of responsibilities than usual, the brain’s prefrontal cortex goes into overdrive. Over time, a high level of demand can decrease memory, halt production of new brain cells, and cause existing brain cells to die.”
This pile-on to an already overloaded calendar can make it difficult to focus on completing even the simplest of tasks. Stress overload can cause us to want to just give up trying to accomplish anything and mainline eggnog until New Year’s Day. Fortunately, there are three simple techniques you can use to rewire your brain when you’re feeling stressed – any time of the year.
1. Practice Gratitude. Don’t let scarce resources distract you from what you already have that brings you joy. Gratitude reduces a multitude of toxic emotions, ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret. Dr. Robert A. Emmons, a leading gratitude researcher at University of California, Davis, has found that gratitude reduces a multitude of toxic emotions, ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret. From just saying a heartfelt “thank you” to someone who makes your day easier, to downloading a gratitude app, mindfully practicing gratitude is a good first step to beating stress.
2. Be a Giver. We all know that giving helps others. Whether we volunteer, offer emotional support to those around us, or donate to charities. But studies show that giving is also good for the giver – boosting physical and mental health. When researchers from the National Institutes of Health looked at the functional MRIs of subjects who gave to various charities, they found that giving stimulates the mesolimbic pathway, which is the reward center in the brain — releasing endorphins and creating what is known as the “helper’s high.” You don’t have to drain your bank account to be a giver. Chances are, you already know someone who could benefit directly from your time, talent, or treasure. Just think about what giving did for Scrooge!
3. Extend Grace. When we experience stress, the slightest thing can set us off. Coffee spilled on the drive to work. Ugly sweater party emails. People who run late for your meeting. If you allow these small things to pile up, they can trigger what Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman refers to as an “amygdala hijack.” Don’t let your body run on a cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol. Instead, let go of the little things that annoy you – about yourself and others – and extend grace. Grace goes further than ignoring or forgiving. It’s an attitude that expresses our dignity and affirms the dignity of those around us. Grace allows us to rise above conflict, and helps to establish calm in the swirl of chaos.
This three-part strategy requires minimal time and effort. Gratitude, giving, and grace can be highly effective when used in combination. When practiced mindfully over time, you’ll have the ability to thwart stress overload any time of the year.
Question: What techniques have you practiced to beat stress overload?