Just as the shift to shorter days and colder weather can bring with itand other , the holiday season can also bring about somewhat predictable changes in mood and behavior.
Around this time of year, many of us experience more stress, anxiety and frustration than usual. These stressors have been linked toand and an increase in .
Learning how to recognize what brings about stress and what parts of the brain are actively involved can help with managing the stress response.
As a neuroscientist, I am often curious about the. I’ve learned that, biologically speaking, there are ways to manage your responses to holiday stressors through awareness of why they happen.
Harnessing the hypothalamus
Delays in itineraries, crowded airports and congested highways can easily lead toto spend time with family or friends.
One region of the brain involved in your response to these types of stresses is the, a structure deep in the brain that is involved in trying to keep the body in a stable state, known as homeostasis. The the , a system that coordinates involuntary responses such as heart rate, blood pressure and respiration. It is the key component of the response to real or perceived threats.
When you are under stress, such as when you learn that your flight has been delayed or even canceled, your hypothalamus stimulates the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine. These hormones in turn trigger physiological responses like increased heart rate, perspiration and feelings of irritation and frustration.
When you experience these stressors,can help stimulate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. This is known as the “rest and digest” system because it is responsible for helping your body relax and recover from stress. By taking slow, deep breaths, you can engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which can in turn and reduce frustrations.
Family dynamics and interactions
Getting together with family during the holidays can bring about complicated emotions when there are conflicting personalities, unresolved issues or.
Frustrating or aggravating conversations with relatives often trigger a region of the brain known as the. The anterior cingulate cortex has a unique position in the brain, establishing connections with both the system and the “ .
This brain region is involved in monitoring and regulating cognitive processes,and error detection. It plays a role in processing frustration by signaling when there is a conflict between expectations and outcomes. The anterior cingulate cortex is also involved in what’s known as , where you evaluate the consequence of an action and adjust your behavior based on feedback.
When you are feeling overwhelmed or frustrated,to step away from the situation can provide a fresh perspective and allow you to return with a clearer mindset. This break will allow you to reinforce this action-outcome learning, helping you learn to associate an action – a short break – with the outcome of the action, which is more relaxed breathing and a clearer mind.
The holiday season can put an unnecessary burden on those who are. The cost of hosting a holiday meal, buying gifts or traveling can contribute additional financial strain during an already stressful time.
The brain regionis the . When you recall past experiences, such as how much you spent last year during the holidays or remember that the credit card bill is coming soon, you activate your hippocampus. The hippocampus is critical in the interplay of memory formation and recall and retrieval of individual episodic memories.
Some ways to reduce stress may be to make gifts for friends and family instead of purchasing them. To help cut down on travel costs, perhaps take a virtual holiday visit now, followed by an in-person visit later when it is less expensive or when financial strains have eased. When reminded of, the hippocampus sends signals to the hypothalamus and other brain regions to help restore balance in your mind. The hippocampus also aids in your adaptation to these stressors by helping you learn how to . In the end, you have to remind yourself that it truly is the thought that counts most.
Loneliness and isolation
Feelings ofcan arise for those of us who may not have family or friends to celebrate with, or perhaps are unable to travel to see those we love.
This is where the “” of the brain plays a role. This network, made up of brain regions including the amygdala, is involved in thoughts of future planning, reminiscing and imagining. The is a part of the limbic system and is associated with processing of negative emotions to stimuli, such as the irritation from not being able to travel, and how you react.
Studies have shown that you can help improve your mood and reduce feelings of frustration and irritation by having a. Physical activity can be an effective outlet for releasing built-up tension and stress. Aerobic exercise can also modulate and help reduce feelings of depression. As an added bonus, if you work out in a gym or park, you have an opportunity to be around others, which can help you feel more connected with communities of people with similar interests.
Family gatherings can lead to, which can result in heated debates and disagreements among family members. These conversations can be very frustrating and even upsetting, especially in .
Theis an area of the brain involved in , decision-making and emotional regulation. It plays a crucial role in assessing certain situations, such as supercharged conversations, and it helps you evaluate and consider your potential actions and temper your emotional responses. Understanding what triggers your frustration in these situations is crucial to developing proactive strategies to manage or avoid them.
For instance, this might take the form ofor perhaps stepping away from the table when voices start to rise or you feel your emotions building. The in regulating the relationship of your initial emotional reaction and the shift to your empathetic emotion. Your ability to build empathetic perspectives and increase cognitive control helps to further develop your prefrontal cortex, potentially making it easier to de-escalate the next time around.
One step at a time
Reducing frustration is a gradual process, and different strategies work for different people.
It is important to identify the root cause of your stress and frustration so that you can develop your own targeted coping strategies. Some examples include engaging in a hobby, listening to music, going on a walk or run, or simply practicing relaxation techniques. It is essential to experiment with various techniques and not be afraid to move away from ones that don’t work and toward ones that do.
The most important thing to remember is that retraining your brain is more of a marathon and not a sprint. It will include trial and error and open-mindedness, but if you focus on identifying your triggers and adapting your own coping strategies, it will almost certainly get better with time.