‘Tis the season to be jolly? The most wonderful time of the year? Joy to the world? Between Black Friday, meal preparations, decorating, dealing with clashing family members, and party after party, the holiday season can be one of the most stressful times of the year. The joy and jolly that we sing about in Christmas carols hardly resonates in our lives as we prepare for and then attempt to survive the stress of the holidays.
According to my dietitian and diabetes educator Michelle Preston, stress can lead to unstable blood sugars. This roller coaster of poor blood sugar control leads to negative consequences: physical, emotional, and mental. Though we may not be able to completely avoid the stress that comes with the holiday festivities, people with diabetes can use practical techniques to deal with whatever comes their way, whether that be another nosy question about your love life from Aunt Cindy, the holiday party that offers nothing but carbohydrate-laden desserts and drinks, or the disruption of your usual workout routine.
Be aware. Awareness, according to yoga instructor Charity Lamprecht, is key. She says, “I think so many of us are striving for the ‘picture-perfect Christmas’—the Christmas Martha Stewart creates, the one you remembered as a child, and/or the one you create in your imagination. To add to all of this, there is the added anxiety of trying to resist certain foods and the prospect of New Year’s resolutions. No wonder we are stressed!” To combat this, Charity suggests, you should take time to note where you are feeling the stress, what that stress is doing to your blood sugars, and how that is affecting your physical and emotional wellbeing. Brandy Barnes, a person with type 1 diabetes and the founder of the website Diabetes Sisters (www.DiabetesSisters.org), states, “Stress is silent, but powerful– just like diabetes. We can ignore it, but that only makes things worse.”
Make a list, check it twice, and then breathe. Once you take the time to become aware of what is stressing you, decisions have to be made. Brandy suggests making a list of your stresses in order to put a name to a particular situation, and then marking those situations off the list as they are resolved. Charity suggests something we often take for granted—breathing. “Breathing deep into your belly triggers your parasympathetic nervous system—the system that ‘rests and digests.’ Focusing on your breath helps you to have a stable center while chaos happens around you.” For me, finding a quiet place, whether that be my bedroom, my home office, or my car, helps me create an environment of focus and relaxation.
Be prepared. Brandy has faced, as many of us do, the stress of the ever-present “food police,” those who think they understand diabetes (it means you can’t have sugar, right?) and take it upon themselves to challenge your food choices. Brandy states, “By handling our holiday stress with grace, we keep our own health in check, serve as a positive role model for children, and change the negative stereotype that exists about people with diabetes.” By planning out a response in advance, you can reply in a manner that impacts those around you in a positive way and you aren’t left embarrassed, ashamed, and thus, even more stressed. I prefer to respond in a way that is simple and clear: “Actually, I can eat foods that contain sugar. I do this by checking my blood sugar first, calculating the number of carbohydrates in the food, and then taking enough insulin to keep my blood sugar stable.”
Choose a good attitude. My mother taught me an important lesson: I am in charge of myself. Circumstances won’t always be ideal, but I can choose to do the right thing. Charity suggests that people with chronic diseases like diabetes do the following: “Make the best choices you can make for yourself right now, today. Don’t wait. You are worth every healthy sacrifice you make, and your loved ones are worth it too.” Not only will your positive attitude and good choices help you feel physically good (and ready to celebrate!), but you will also be setting an example for those who are around you and watching you.
Ask for help, and make changes if it helps you. If you are hosting a holiday celebration, it’s easy to get caught up in the details, get stressed, and forget to enjoy your guests. Think outside the box. Host a holiday potluck and assign dishes, for example, so that you do not have to do all the cooking. Start a new tradition that gets everyone involved and gives you a break. Do not be afraid to completely break away from old traditions. Order pizza, draw names rather than buy for each person, or volunteer as a family instead of staying indoors.
Schedule a break. Just like when you write a party in your calendar, schedule a few hours or even a few days when you can have some time to yourself. Putting yourself and your needs aside is a slippery slope that will lead to poor blood sugar control and stress. Do something you enjoy, like watching an old movie, cooking a new recipe, or reading a book. The simple joy of being alone will give you the energy boost you need to take on your next holiday project with a good attitude.
Stick to your routine (as much as possible). My blood sugar control thrives on my routine: healthy meals and snacks, a workout, and frequent blood sugar checks. When this routine is disrupted, my body can suffer physically for hours and even days. I make sure that the hotels where we stay when traveling have a gym and a (healthy) continental breakfast. I verify that the gym’s equipment is in working order before I make a reservation. Even though I would like to abandon my diabetes for a few days, I know that sticking to my routine will pay off.
Boost your mood. Getting enough vitamin D is crucial in the darker, colder winter months. Vitamin D helps keep depression at bay. It can be gained through moderate sun exposure or through a supplement. Exercise also boosts the feel-good hormones, endorphins, in your body. Foods like dark chocolate and berries contain anti-oxidants that promote health. Another option is to put on a favorite CD, which can be both soothing and familiar.
Although no one choice will magically alleviate your holiday stress, the accumulation of good choices will result in a happier holiday and a healthier you.