It’s no secret that the most wonderful time of the year can also be one of the most stressful. But, it doesn’t have to be. Thankfully, there are a whole host of easy to do activities that can help bring those cortisol levels down. We rounded up six tension-busters that will keep you calm and energized so you can enjoy your holiday season with those you hold nearest and dearest.
When a lengthy list of holiday to-do’s sends your stress levels soaring, wrap your arms around a loved one or snuggle your pup. University of Arizona scientists say regular physical contact, no matter how brief, keeps the brain churning out oxytocin, a happiness hormone that curbs stress and reduces your risk of anxiety by 65 percent.
Cut Yourself Some Slack
If an unexpected hiccup keeps you from checking off all your goals for the day, take a deep breath, picture a peaceful scene — like sun sparkling on snow-covered trees — and remind yourself you’re only human. Research in Personality and Individual Differences shows that folks with the most self-compassion are also the most relaxed!
Light a Candle
Spending time in nature exposes you to negative ions, molecules that encourage the body to release the happiness-boosting, stress-busting hormone serotonin. To get the same feel-good effect when you’re cooped up indoors, light a beeswax candle. The burning of the natural wax fills the space with mood-lifting negative ions.
Enjoy the Morning
Whether you’re caring for a loved one or dealing with a job transition, chronic stress can feel especially acute when you’re also planning for the holidays. Luckily, you can find inner peace again by taking a few minutes each morning to read a chapter of a book or watch the sunrise. Having a positive experience early in the day reduces your output of the stress hormone cortisol for 16 hours, according to research published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
Procrastinate Until After Lunch
Got a stressful task, like paying bills, on your to-do list? Tackle it in the afternoon, and you’ll feel 54 percent less tense. That’s because your body naturally produces more stress hormones in the morning, so facing a challenge later in the day triggers less of an anxiety spike.
Partake in Acts of Kindness
To calm your nerves before attending your spouse’s company holiday party, donate old clothes to Goodwill or hold the door for a stranger. Performing an act of service when you’re anxious makes you significantly less self-conscious and helps tame fears of rejection, say investigators reporting in the journal Motivation and Emotion. Why? When others react positively to your kindness, it makes you more comfortable interacting with new people.
Snack on Pretzels
Munching on something salty also eases social stress. University of Cincinnati researchers report that elevated sodium levels help block the release of a stress-inducing hormone to quickly soothe jitters.
Try a Citrus Massage
If anxiety keeps you up at night, rub citrus-scented lotion into your hands, neck, and shoulders. Doing so can help you doze off 63 percent faster, Canadian scientists say, since massage slows cortisol production while the citrus scent triggers the release of sleep-inducing brain waves.
Playing low-stress brain games, like sudoku or crossword puzzles, for just 10 minutes reduces the output of stress hormones, helping you drift off to sleep in half the time.
It can be hard to focus on what really matters when you’re worried about planning a big holiday dinner and finding time to shop for gifts. To the rescue: 10 minutes of happy thoughts and gratitude. Researchers say that reflecting on your wishes for the happiness and health of family and friends daily lifts your spirits, cutting stress hormone production by as much as 50 percent.
Listen to Monaural Beats
To soothe worrisome thoughts, cue up a song with monaural beats, or two pulsing tones in one. A study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found this unique sound releases calming delta and theta brain waves. To try it for free, visit YouTube.
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.