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It’s Annika’s first Christmas.
Being a (new) parent for Christmas this year has brought about a whole list of questions and concerns and thoughts about how to raise a child. What should our traditions be? How to we keep Annika mindful of the reason for the season? How do we teach her that Christmas is about more than presents? What do we do with Santa?
Maybe I’m just too sensitive. Maybe I’m overzealous for trying to be the “best” parent. Maybe I’m a little too terrified that if I screw this part up I’ll end up with an ungrateful and unhealthy child.
Being a parent is stressful. Doubly stressful at this time of year.
Infinitely more stressful since the horrific tragedies in Connecticut.
So how do we cope? From a physician’s perspective I can say that this time of year definitely leads to a sympathetic-dominant nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our “fight or flight” instincts – like the rush of adrenaline we get when in a life-or-death situation (like fighting off a bear). Here are all the things the sympathetic nervous system does to help us to fight off that bear:
- Increases diameter of the pupil (to let more light in so we can see the bear more clearly)
- Shuts down blood flow to our intestines so more blood can be shunted to the heart and the muscle (so we can run away from the bear faster)
- Widens the passages in the lungs (so we can get more oxygen into the lungs and the bloodstream)
- Raises blood pressure (to increase blood flow to the heart and muscles)
- Increases cortisol secretion which suppresses the immune system (why fight a cold when you are fighting a bear), and releases more sugar into the bloodstream (your muscles are going to need a lot of glucose to run away)
So what’s the problem with this? There is no bear.
Our bodies were meant to fight a bear and immediately return to relaxing and digesting. Long-term stress, like in the Holiday season, predisposes us to illnesses and disease.
So how do we fight the proverbial bear without succumbing to the negative effects of stress? Here are some of my tricks to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” system that balances the body and promotes healing)
- Breathe. It sounds so simple, but truthfully most Americans are terrible at breathing. We breathe shallowly and too quickly. To activate the parasympathetic nervous system we need to breathe much more slowly. Try a quick exercise in breathing – inhale deeply for 4-6 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4-6 seconds, then hold for another 4 seconds. My mentor liked to call the “box” breathing – you can visualize a box in the air, with the inhale being the upstroke, exhale being the downstroke, and the horizontal lines where you hold. Try taking a few seconds out of your day to trying some breathing exercises, particularly in stressful moments – I think you’ll notice a big difference.
- Eat real food. We all know the Christmas cookie parties, the trays of fudge and cream cheese dip you’ll find at the office, the candy canes and chocolates that we’ll be eating extras of. All that sugar and fats takes nutrients (B vitamins!) to metabolize in the body – without repleting those nutrients you’ll end up feeling tired, bloated and “hung-over”. This is great time of year for winter greens like kale and chard, and for vitamin-A packed squash and pumpkin. Be sure to add extra fiber in your diet (whole grains or greens) to prevent the sluggish digestion associated with the Holiday cookie and candy parties.
- Smell. The sense of smell is strongly linked to activating the parasympathetic nervous system – that’s why you drool when smelling a delicious meal. Take some time before you eat to breathe deeply – this is why saying grace or giving thanks is such a good idea before eating. Be sure to take time to smell the Christmas tree, your holiday wreath, the candles, or whatever else your family sets out for your holiday (in my Swedish house growing up it would be the straw ornaments).
Breathe deeply, eat well, and have a wonderful time this year. And if the holidays wreaked havoc on your body or your family this year please schedule a visit – I’ll be seeing patients starting January 3rd.
Give an extra hug to your little ones in thanks. I’ll see you next year!