Family during Chritsmas season

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… and also one of the most stressful ones

The end of the year is the beginning of the most stressful season for many people around the world. The frantic pace of shopping for gifts and preparing for guests; dealing with crowded airports and trains on our way to and from visiting family and friends; and pressure on the job to get projects finished before the holidays, can all take their toll on us.

In addition to the festive workload, the bright light and omnipresent Christmas carols, the close contact with family members and loved ones, the often unavoidable differences in opinion, the strain on everyone’s budget as well as expectations that are set too high can all cause stress levels to increase during the Holidays.  

The impact of stress can be severe; chronic stress can result in a reduced ability of short-term memory1 recall, cause cardiovascular system disorder2 , sleep disruption and insomnia3, and affect the immune system4. All of these health conditions are a cause for concern, especially over the holiday season when many people are suffering from stress and find themselves unable to relax or switch off.

We now understand that stress can be related to several physiological factors and hormones related to the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, and these can affect digestion, the immune system, mood, and energy levels, among other things. There is even some preliminary evidence that exposure to long-term stresses may alter the DNA a parent passes to their children, making them more susceptible to stress.

Stress and Industrialization

While humans have always suffered from what we now call stress, it wasn’t until the first part of the 20th century that Hungarian- Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye first examined the biological nature of this condition and coined the term ‘stress’ - from the Latin strictus which means tight, compressed, drawn together. He showed that persistent stress could cause animals to develop diseases similar to those seen in humans, including heart attacks, strokes and kidney disease.

Selye’s work began at the end of a 50-year shift in population from rural to urban environments. In the US, the percentage of urban dwellers doubled between 1880 and 1930, when it represented more than half the population. That urban shift was the result of a boom in mechanized factory work that had begun to supplant agricultural labor as the chief source of employment in western nations in the late 19th century.

As factory work became more regimented under efficiency plans, the push for greater productivity also led to more stress - captured memorably in Charlie Chaplin’s famous scene in his 1936 film Modern Times, where he is unable to keep pace with the assembly line and is finally devoured by its giant gears.

Technology and Stress

Over the last few decades, lifestyles have changed. Many of us find ourselves constantly tethered to our phones as we check our emails or continuously connect to social media. And when email and chats enable work demands to push into personal time that can add to our stress levels.

The mobile technology that’s supposed to make our lives easier is also increasing stress, especially for people who never “switch off” their screens. One emerging observation5 is that we are all checking our phones far too often – and ignoring the people directly in front of us. Social media is a major driver for ‘constant checkers’ – individuals who rarely step away from the screen or put down their mobile devices – and they can find themselves flipping between Facebook, Twitter and other social channels frequently as well as checking work and personal emails.
 
Culture can play a role in how people experience and deal with stress in different countries. Our Self-Care survey* in 2018 reported that 60% of workers suffering from stress will go to work rather than call in sick. A fifth report that they do so ten times or more every month – which means that half the time they are at work they are stressed and this can have an impact on their health and lower their productivity. The survey showed that 66% of respondents in the U.S. suffered from stress at least once a month, compared to 42% in Japan. In the U.S., 28% of respondents went to work 10 times or more in a year while stressed, compared to 19% of Japanese respondents.

The survey also found that across the nine countries stress has the most intense impact in the workplace, with 73% of weekly stress sufferers saying it has an important impact on their mood. This is compared to other common health conditions such as allergies, coughs, colds or headaches.

Stress and Self-care

One of the key findings of a 75-year study on adult development conducted by researchers at Harvard University was that the one most important contributing factor to happiness was healthy, genuine relationships6. Those who were more socially connected were happier and healthier whereas those who were more isolated were less happy and lived shorter lives.  

The holiday and Christmas period is a perfect time to take a social media breather to reconnect with loved ones and nurture relationships.

References

* The study participants live in France, Germany, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, USA, Australia, Japan and Russia, and were asked about headache, abdominal pain, period pain, back pain, diarrhea, constipation, indigestion, cough, cold, allergies, flu, sleep issues, stress. The survey results have a 95% confidence level.

1 Habib Yaribeygi et al. 2017. “The impact of stress on body function: A review.” EXCLI J. Vol. 16: 1057–1072. doi:  10.17179/excli2017-480
2 J. E. Dimsdale. 2008. “Psychological Stress and Cardiovascular Disease.” J Am Coll Cardiol. Vol 51: 1237–1246. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2007.12.024
3 Meerlo P., Sgoifo A., and Suchecki D. 2008. “Restricted and disrupted sleep: Effects on autonomic function, neuroendocrine stress systems and stress responsivity.” Vol. 12: 197-210. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2007.07.007
4 Dhabhar F. 2014. “Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful.” Immunol Res. Vol. 58:193-210. doi: 10.1007/s12026-014-8517-0.
5 https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/02/checking-devices.aspx
6 https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/

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