“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” sings Andy Williams, but it can also be the most stressful time of the year. In fact, a study of holiday stress for the American Psychological Association found that for most people in the United States, the holidays actually increase stress, rather than decrease it.
Add a chronic illness that responds poorly to stress, and…well, for many people with diabetes, it’s hardly the most wonderful time of the year at all.
Types of holiday stress
Holiday stress isn’t a single thing. Rather, it’s a constellation of different stressors in the winter skies, and one or more can impact any of us during the season. Broadly speaking, holiday stressors can be broken into physiological stressors, such as those caused by changes in eating patterns and food choices, changes in exercise habits, or the physiological impact of travel; and psychological stressors, such as family issues, finances, and shopping and the impact of holiday expectations.
Nor is there a single solution to holiday stress. Let’s take a deeper look at some common stressors and explore solutions that can make your holiday more…well, wonderful.
Eating patterns and food choices
Food is probably the biggest holiday stressor for people with diabetes. In addition to the direct blood sugar impact, holiday sweets come complete with high levels of stress from both temptation and guilt.
Tip #1: To manage this type of stress: Thwart temptation by planning in advance. One option is to resist the majority of offerings but treat yourself to one indulgence a day. Another option is to sample all that’s offered, but in a bird-like manner. And if your plan fails and you fall off the carb wagon, no guilt. Just dust yourself off and climb back on.
Changes in exercise
Whether you are traveling to a distant city or hosting friends and family, nothing gets in the way of your normal exercise routine more than the holidays. For some people, this means their morning workout is temporary suspended, while for others, it means rushing around like a maniac. Either way, your body really doesn’t like change, and it reacts to changes in exercise the same way it does to other types of stressors.
Tip #2: To manage this type of stress: If you can’t engage in your typical workout routine, try to keep as active as possible or maintain a “lite” version of your normal workout during the holidays. If you find yourself more active than usual, it may be necessary to decease diabetes medications or increase the carb count of your holiday meals to avoid low blood sugar. Just remember that longer-acting carbs are a better defense from activity-induced lows than quick carbs.
Nothing, it seems, raises blood sugar more than travel, and now there’s science to prove it. Recent research by Rahul Suresh, MD, presented at the 25th AACE Clinical Congress, estimated that 10% of people with diabetes traveling by commercial air suffer from in-flight diabetes-related complications. He also noted that the risk doesn’t dissipate at touchdown, but extends for a full 24 hours after landing.
On top of that, travel fatigue (jet lag) can result in medication errors such as administering the wrong insulin or taking oral medications twice.
Tip #3: To manage this type of stress: Plan ahead to minimize the impact of travel. If you’re traveling by commercial air, consider booking with layovers that are neither too long nor too short (both cause trouble) rather than just grabbing the cheapest fare. If you’re traveling by car, consider taking an extra day rather than being the ultimate road warrior.
When traveling across multiple time zones, carefully plan how to adjust the timing of your diabetes medications en route.
Some people are isolated from and missing their families at the holidays, while others are forced to spend time with family members with whom they have…strained relationships.
Tip #4: To manage these types of stresses: If you are away from your family and dealing with loneliness, use technology like FaceTime or Skype to be part of the gathering. Additionally, Bill Polonsky, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and certified diabetes educator, recommends fighting holiday loneliness by volunteering time in a “soup kitchen, nursing home, or with some other charitable group.” This re-focuses your attention, and by giving your time, “you will be doing much good for yourself as well as others,” says Polonsky.
If you are stressed out by having to spend time with family members you’d rather not be around, Polonsky recommends taking action in advance rather than just hoping for the best. That can range from honestly sharing feelings ahead of time to extending a peace pipe (even if you didn’t start the trouble) to simply arranging the seating order at the family dinner to separate members who clash. Failing all of that, Polonsky’s advice is, “leave the gathering at an earlier hour and do something truly enjoyable” to release your stress.
Money and shopping
Last year’s annual consumer shopping survey by Deloitte estimated U.S. gift purchases during the holidays at $426 per person, with another $572 in non-gift holiday spending. That kind of expenditure puts a strain on many families’ finances. On top of that, the actual shopping — the pursuit of the perfect gift for everyone on your list — makes the shopping experience itself stressful.
Tip #5: To manage this type of stress: Plan far ahead. Rather than rack up credit card bills as the snow falls, set money aside all year long for holiday spending. The idea isn’t new — many banks have offered temporary holiday savings accounts, traditionally called “Christmas Club” accounts, for decades. A different approach is to spread out your shopping over the entire year. This both spaces out the spending and reduces the stress of the shopping itself. Except for those few last-minute trendy gifts for special people, you can finish your holiday shopping long before the holidays start, leaving you more time to actually enjoy the season.
Sometimes we buy into society’s hype. Many people — especially women, according to the American Psychological Association study — strive for the mythical perfect holiday. When visions and reality clash, stress is the result.
Tip #6: To manage this type of stress: Try to set realistic and reasonable expectations. It’s not going to be the perfect Hollywood holiday from the days of black and white movies. And if you fail to reach even this “lower bar,” focus on what came out right rather than beating yourself up about what went wrong. Well, the turkey was overcooked, but how about those awesome yams?
General stress relievers
Tip #7: Of course, stock stress relievers can help you unwind and decompress. Take five. Or take a bubble bath. Meditate. Listen to music. Take a walk. Or a run. Light a candle. Get a massage. Vent in a journal. Take in a comedy show. Escape with a nap.
Or just take a deep breath. And try to enjoy the holidays.
Want to learn more about reducing stress and maintaining your health during the holidays? Read “Creating New Holiday Traditions” and “Finding Balance: Tips to Maintain Your Health During the Holidays.”