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Psychology expert offers advice for less stress, more joy during the holidays

by Thea Singer

The hol­i­days are billed as a time of joy, but they can also be a time of increased stress for many people. In addi­tion, Wednesday, Dec. 21, is the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year, with the sun set­ting in Boston at the early hour of 4:15 p.m. Sea­sonal affec­tive dis­order, or SAD, is a form of major depres­sion that often strikes in these shorter, darker days.

We asked Lisa Feldman Bar­rett, Uni­ver­sity Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Psy­chology at North­eastern, why the hol­i­days affect so many of us this way and what we can do to min­i­mize the dif­fi­cult emo­tions we may experience.

We gen­er­ally attribute increased stress to external sources: We feel we have too much to do, or the season reminds us of past losses and what is missing in our lives today. How­ever, in your forth­coming book, How Emo­tions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, you posit a theory that says we “con­struct” instances of stress because of how our brains work. What does that mean?

Just as a large com­pany has a finan­cial office that parses its rev­enues and expenses to develop bud­gets for var­ious accounts, you, too, have a “finan­cial office”—your brain. While your brain cre­ates thoughts, feel­ings, and per­cep­tions, it also man­ages the budget for all the accounts in your body, for example, nutri­ents such as water, salt, and glu­cose, a simple sugar that is our cells’ pri­mary energy source. There’s a tech­nical term for keeping these accounts in bal­ance: allostasis. At cer­tain times, say, when you exer­cise, your mus­cles may need more glu­cose than your diges­tive system, and it is the brain’s job to divvy up the resources appro­pri­ately to keep the bal­ance. If you exer­cise for long enough, then the brain may use up more nutri­ents than is com­fort­able, and you’ll lose that bal­ance. Your brain will then cor­rect it once you step off the tread­mill by, per­haps, cuing you to eat a snack.

For the brain to manage your body’s budget effi­ciently, it must be able to pre­dict what your body will need so the resources will meet the need before it arises. For example, if your brain is preparing you for a sprint, it will increase your blood pres­sure and move glu­cose into your mus­cles before the action starts so you can, lit­er­ally, hit the ground run­ning. Overall, your brain is very good at its budget-​​balancing task.

Stress results when the bal­ance goes off kilter and the body is taxed. Now, there is “good” stress, like that expe­ri­enced in the exer­cise example above. You have a moment of imbal­ance for the greater good (exer­cise ben­e­fits your heart, brain, and other organs) that you can quickly cor­rect, here with a snack and some water. How­ever, if your brain is con­stantly preparing your body to deal with a threat that never mate­ri­al­izes, the imbalance—the stress—becomes chronic: You feel as if you are car­rying the weight of the world on your shoul­ders. The sen­sa­tions trans­late as affect (feeling pleasant or unpleasant, feeling acti­vated or calm), which is a raw ingre­dient of emo­tions: You expe­ri­ence fatigue, depres­sion, anx­iety, guilt, shame, dis­gust, and agitation.

Why does our stress often increase during the hol­iday season?

We are a social species. Unbe­knownst to us, we reg­u­late each others’ ner­vous sys­tems all the time: through smell, touch, sounds, and vision, and even through the words we speak to one another. Indeed, the sys­tems in the brain that are impor­tant for lan­guage con­nect directly to cir­cuitry that reg­u­lates our body budget. That means other people can help bal­ance that body budget or, con­versely, send it off course. Either may happen more fre­quently during the hol­i­days because we are sur­rounded by others so often.

There is a Dutch word, gezellig, that can be trans­lated to mean cozy, nice atmos­phere, a sense of belonging, time spent with loved ones. That is the pos­i­tive side of being with other people—you feel a syn­chrony, your loved ones con­tribute to your allostasis. Their body bud­gets are helping yours and vice versa. If you spend too much time alone, during the hol­i­days or at other times, your body budget suf­fers because your brain is trying to manage it all on its own. There’s another neg­a­tive side, too, which can be char­ac­ter­ized by the Eng­lish word angst: annoying family mem­bers, large par­ties where you know very few guests, that hole in the gut when you’re reminded of someone you lost. It can send your blood pres­sure soaring, your throat constricting.

What are some ways we can coun­teract stress during the holidays?

There are sev­eral lifestyle choices that ease your brain’s job of man­aging your body budget.

Get enough sleep. Dif­ferent people need dif­ferent amounts of sleep, but seven to eight hours is the stan­dard rec­om­men­da­tion. Lack of sleep is one of the great body-​​budget de-​​regulators. It throws off your body’s cir­ca­dian rhythm, the normal rise and fall of the hor­mones that wake you up and wind you down.

Exer­cise in a way that suits you. If you love to run, going out for a jog may be a great de-​​stressor, but if you don’t, it may have the oppo­site effect. Figure out what form of exer­cise makes you feel good. You might choose to go for a restora­tive swim, or for a leisurely walk in a park or around the block, working to stay present in the moment by paying atten­tion to details in the world around you. If you have the time and resources, con­sider a mas­sage or yoga ses­sions. Mas­sage can be extremely helpful because it is known to stim­u­late the opi­oids in the skin and reduce inflam­ma­tion in the body. A gentle massage—a friend rub­bing your shoulders—could be just as effec­tive as a deep tissue massage.

Eat health­fully. High-​​fat, high-​​sugar, highly processed car­bo­hy­drates are deli­cious and may feel like com­fort food but they actu­ally work against keeping your body budget in bal­ance over the long term. Be sure you are eating salads, fruits and veg­eta­bles, lean pro­tein, and whole grains.

What role does light play in the devel­op­ment of sea­sonal affec­tive disorder?

The retina, a part of the brain, is a layer at the back of the eye that con­verts light energy into nerve sig­nals, enabling you to see. Gan­glion cells in the retina not only receive visual infor­ma­tion; they also reg­u­late your cir­ca­dian rhythm, which, as men­tioned above, is the cyclical rise and fall of hor­mones that in turn wake you up and make you sleepy. A dis­rup­tion in your cir­ca­dian rhythm knocks your body budget for a loop.

The lack of light is one factor that can tax your body budget, leading to a state of depres­sion. Many other fac­tors can con­tribute as well, including a genetic pre­dis­po­si­tion and trauma. In severe depres­sion, the brain may stop pro­cessing infor­ma­tion cor­rectly from the out­side world, leading to faulty pre­dic­tions regarding needs and, in turn, extreme energy deficits.

What are some ways we can coun­teract depres­sion during these darker days?

We go out­side less when it’s dark, are more seden­tary, and may sleep too much, again throwing off our cir­ca­dian rhythm. In addi­tion, because we stay inside more, we often don’t get enough vit­amin D; our bodies require sun­light to pro­duce vit­amin D. A vit­amin D defi­ciency can upset your body budget, as it inter­feres with your thy­roid and other functions.

All of this points to making sure that you spend time out­doors, in nat­ural light—try for a walk every day, if pos­sible. Nothing replaces being out in the light. Even when it’s cloudy, the sun’s rays get through. While walking, cul­ti­vate an appre­ci­a­tion for what you see, hear, smell, touch. Even on the grayest day, you can find some­thing that will inspire a sense of beauty or awe. And that’s what the hol­iday season is sup­posed to be about.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on December 21, 2016.

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