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Handling Holiday Stress

by Linda Wasmer Andrews

‘Tis the season to be jolly? Jolly well sick of the holidays, perhaps. After decking the halls, braving the malls, and baking 12 dozen cookies she shouldn’t even eat, Marcia, for one, is always too tired and cranky to enjoy the big day much. To make matters worse, the combination of too little rest and too much stress often sends her blood glucose soaring out of control. It’s enough to turn a sweet-tempered lady into a first-class Scrooge.

Marcia isn’t the first to succumb to the five-week stress-fest that runs from the Thanksgiving turkey to the New Year’s hangover. According to a 1996 Prevention Magazine and Dateline NBC poll, 41% of those surveyed found the holidays somewhat or very stressful, ranking them right up there on the stress scale with asking the boss for a raise.

Just how stressful can celebration be? A 1999 study published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation found that the number of deaths from cardiac events increased sharply starting around Thanksgiving and rose steadily until shortly after New Year’s Day, when the number dropped off again. Previously, researchers who had noticed similar trends often attributed the increase to the cold weather. However, the death records analyzed for this study came from sunny Southern California, so it seemed more likely that the holidays themselves were to blame. It appeared that for some people, at least, the prolonged stress and overindulgence in food and alcohol during this season could be a fatal combination.

For most people with diabetes, the more likely consequence of seasonal stress is out-of-control blood glucose levels. Stress may affect blood glucose levels in two ways. First, the circumstances causing the stress may distract people so that they neglect to follow their usual self-care regimen. Second, the body reacts to stress by releasing hormones that prompt secretion of glucose from the liver. In people with Type 2 diabetes, most of whose bodies still make insulin, stress can also block the release of insulin from the pancreas, leaving the extra glucose circulating in the blood. Many studies have found that psychological as well as physical stress can raise blood glucose levels in people with Type 2 diabetes. The effects are more mixed in those with Type 1. Most people with Type 1 diabetes say stress drives their blood glucose level up, but some say that it brings the level down. In either case, the result of stress can be sudden fluctuations in blood glucose levels, which can drain you of energy and make it harder to handle the holidays.

Too-great expectations
The sources of holiday stress are as plentiful as half-off sales in January, but many can be attributed to unrealistic expectations about what the season should be. Too often, people try to squeeze a whole year’s worth of love, joy, and generosity into a few short days. And as often as not, they wind up overdoing and overspending instead of enjoying themselves.

Sometimes people set themselves up for disappointment by trying to live out unfulfilled childhood fantasies. Some people feel that they missed out on the holiday fun as children — for example, because their family couldn’t afford many gifts or because special occasions were marred by an alcoholic or absent parent. As adults, they may go overboard trying to make up for the disappointment. At the other extreme, there are some who grew up in affluent circumstances, who feel inadequate because they can’t give their own family the same kind of lavish treats they had as children.

Then there are the unrealistic images we cherish of the picture-perfect, Norman Rockwell holiday scene: a smiling, joyful family gathered around a beautifully set table loaded with delectable food. In real life, the scene may look quite different: The baby is crying, the older children are making a mess of the table, the turkey is dry, and the rolls are burned to a crisp. The women look frazzled, and the men are arguing about the ball game. The fact is, festivities rarely go as planned, and with such idyllic models in mind, it’s no wonder folks often feel a painful gap between the holiday they think they ought to have and the one they actually experience.

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