Holidays In The Hippocampus

These Brain Hacks Will Help You Deal With Holiday Stress

A neuroscience researcher helps us fight back the winter anxiety and find that holiday zen.

A stressed dad puts together a tricycle in front of a Christmas tree.
Andersen Ross Photography Inc/Getty

It’s easy to assume that the reason you’re stressed out right now is because of the department store fluorescent lights glaring down on you as Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” plays over the loudspeaker for the hundredth time that day. Or because you’re simply having your in-laws hound you about Christmas dinner plans. Or because your bank account is looking a little drier than usual. As if the circumstances weren’t bad enough, the holiday season — specifically the winter holidays — take a physical toll on your mind and body.

Wintertime brings about plenty of biological stress. In addition to lower Vitamin D levels from lack of sun exposure making us more prone to seasonal depression, healthy eating habits tend to go out the window this time of year. And when willpower doesn’t fail, the social pressures to eat cookies and guzzle eggnog prevail. Plus, the cold weather keeps us trapped inside. “In winter, we spend a lot more time at home, and we’re not getting outside and getting grounded to the earth,” says Patrick Porter, Ph.D., a neuroscience researcher and founder of the BrainTap, a mental fitness app.

This is on top of all the everyday stressors of going to work, paying bills, and raising a family that flood your brain and body with “adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine, which will then cause a cascade of stressful activity in the body,” Porter says. “The resulting stressful activity in the body can extend well past the holiday season, for months or even years,” Porter warns.

So how to halt it? Here, Porter shares tricks for reducing holiday stress, along with a few more surprising causes of it to look out for.

We have to interact with a lot of people over the holidays and you argue that stresses the brain. How?

Brain stress can occur when you’re put in a situation where multiple generations will be, from grandparents, to parents, to children to aunts and uncles and cousins — sometimes people you may only see once a year. And the holidays put a lot of expectations on us that can lead to loads of stress. The stress shows up in higher cortisol levels and higher adrenaline present in the body, which causes the hippocampus, the part of the brain that processes information, to slow down and perhaps misfire.

How can people reduce the likelihood of these stress reactions in the body from happening?

One way to help achieve this goal is to limit the amount of alcohol present at these events, because overindulgence seems to cascade into other negative experiences. It’s also a good idea to limit the amount of sugar being consumed.

Make sure that you eat some kind of healthy protein and some kind of healthy fat prior to your holiday event. For instance, maybe you have a protein drink that has avocado in it. Then put some fiber in it. These are all going to help slow down the effects of sugar on your body and keep your brain operating at peak efficiency. Have healthy alternatives available such as low glycemic fruits. If you want to have a little bit of sugar, have something like strawberries, which has the sweet flavor but has a low glycemic response, which means it's not going to impact stress in the brain as much.

What areas of the brain are the most impacted by holiday stress?

There are two parts of the brain that really get affected by this. One is the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain that monitors and controls our emotions. The amygdala is why once we have a couple of drinks, we can become emotionally freed up and make decisions that might have adverse long-term effects. So, the key here is to, again, consume less alcohol and sugar, and focus more on having a good time interacting with people.

The other part of the brain that's affected is the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain that under stressful events can atrophy. When you think about stress, stress is the restriction of blood flow and circulation, which means nutrients and oxygen are not being delivered to that part of the brain. This, in turn, affects the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that affects executive functioning, which helps us make bad decisions when we're stressed. That's why during the holidays, or when anything critical happens in your life, you don’t want to make life-altering decisions because the brain is not being downregulated. The trick here is to implement a mindfulness practice.

What are some ways to start practicing mindfulness around the holidays?

Give yourself permission to prepare mentally, just like a professional athlete that prepares for any big game or performance. They want to focus and gather their attention and visualize the end result before they begin. This is key to liberating the brain and getting it to move in the direction of a healthy holiday season and healthy winter activities.

Beyond eating less sugar and drinking less alcohol, are there any other healthy ways to better enjoy this time of year?

The number one thing you can do during the holidays or during the winter months in general is to set a sleep hygiene schedule. During the holidays, there will likely be one or two days when you stay up later than normal. But the brain loves patterns. If you can continue to go to sleep at the same time and wake up at the same time during the holidays, this is going to help your brain regulate.

To do this, we recommend practicing a breathing exercise called the four-eight method. The four-eight breath is important because it actually exercises the nervous system, which controls and mitigates stress in the body.

Can you break down how the four-eight breathing method works?

By breathing into the count of four, you are activating the sympathetic nervous system, also known as fight or flight. This is the part of your nervous system that can get stuck. To release that stuck state and liberate your body from the physical sensations of stress, you're going to slowly breathe out to the mental count of eight. As you slowly breathe out to the mental count of eight, do a scan of your body from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. If you’re feeling any stress or tension in the body, simply breathe it out.

To do the four-eight breath correctly, you're going to connect that breath. So, you're going to be breathing in or breathing out with no pause in between and no hesitation. This allows the body to exercise the nervous system and offload the excess stress that's part of your system.

Then, upon awakening, you can do another breathing exercise called the four-four-four breath. Here, you would breathe in to the count of four, hold to the count of four, and breathe out to the count of four. This will help to activate the part of the brain responsible for cognition and critical thought.

Are there any other hacks for dealing with holiday stress?

One of the best things you can do to have a fit brain for 2023 is start a schedule in the morning that sets a winning tone for the rest of the day. Engage in some type of physical activity, holding off on that first cup of coffee until afterwards so that your body can use the sugars that are circulating in the bloodstream and can tap into fat stores.

In the middle of the day when you start to feel tired or when you return home from work, again, practice some kind of brain fitness to supercharge your 2023 goals. Whether your goal is to lose weight, be better at golf, or to have better relationships with your family and friends, all these goals start in your mind. You must visualize your goal in your mind before you can organize it in your thoughts and execute it in your life.

So, visualize in this powerful new way, and then start a practice before sleep to encourage deep relaxation. All of this is going to help your brain.