Frazzled for the holidays

I enjoy the holiday season as much as the next person, but guess what? It’s always a relief when Jan. 2 rolls around and life returns to normal.

Talk about irony: This is supposed to be a happy time of year, yet for many people it often ends up being incredibly stressful.

When the American Psychological Association conducted a survey some years ago, money problems led the list of top reasons for holiday-related stress. About 60 percent of the 1,000 people who took the survey said a lack of money caused the most stress for them during the holidays. The pressures of gift-giving, lack of time and credit card debt were close behind.

The survey also found that people worried about how holiday stress was affecting their health; about one in three reported turning to food or alcohol to help them cope.

List My 5, a website devoted to top-five lists of everything from must-read books to remedies for migraines, highlights the emotional baggage that often contributes to the Christmas crunch: families who fight or don’t get along with each other, pressure to pull off the perfect Christmas, and nostalgia for happier Christmases of the past.

The effect of all of this on people’s well-being is very real. They might develop headaches, difficulty sleeping or even full-blown depression, especially if they’re already susceptible to seasonal affective disorder, which is triggered by the shortened hours of daylight during the winter.

Here’s an eye-opening fact: Several years ago, researchers decided to track heart disease-related deaths across the year to determine whether there was a seasonal pattern. They were surprised to find that deaths from heart attacks and strokes were more frequent during the early winter months than the rest of the year – and cold weather, which is known to affect the circulatory system, did not seem to be an important factor.

In an article that appeared in the Circulation journal in 2004, Dr. Robert A. Kloner describes the findings:

When we plotted daily rates of death from ischemic heart disease in Los Angeles County during November, December, and January, we were struck by an increase in deaths starting around Thanksgiving, climbing through Christmas, peaking on New Year’s Day, and then falling, whereas daily minimum temperatures remained relatively flat during December and January.

The mechanism for this isn’t entirely clear, but there are several suspects: holiday foods that tend to be higher in salt and fat, excess alcohol consumption, and even increased exposure to potentially harmful particulates from wood-burning fireplaces.

Stress is an obvious culprit, Kloner writes. “During the holiday season, patients may feel stress from having to interact with relatives whom they may or may not want to encounter; having to absorb financial pressures such as purchasing gifts, traveling expenses, entertaining, and decorating; and having to travel, especially in the post-September 11, 2001, era.”

Hospitals that are more lightly staffed during the holiday season – and therefore not geared up as usual to care for cardiac patients – might be a factor as well, Kloner suggests.

The phenomenon of seasonal heart emergencies is recognized well enough to have earned its own name: the “Merry Christmas coronary” or the “Happy New Year heart attack.” (Related to this is “holiday heart syndrome,” or episodes of atrial fibrillation that are caused by alcohol consumption and that can lead to stroke.)

The message in all of this can be summed up in two words: Slow down. Kloner’s advice, especially to those who already have heart disease or have risk factors for heart disease, is to watch their intake of salt and alcohol, avoid overeating, get enough sleep and be prudent about physical exertion.

Curbing holiday stress is easier said than done, but the holiday season will probably be a lot happier for many folks if they can enjoy it without the burden of being overly frazzled.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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