How Can I Manage Holiday Parenting Stress?
We know that every holiday season, parents have lots of questions – whether it’s how to deal with stress-inducing in-laws or ways to keep their kids healthy. That’s why, this year, we tapped four advice columnists and experts to help us. Enter: The Holiday Nightline, where we’re answering your most burning questions about parenting during the holidays. Keep reading for a Q&A advice column from Aditi Nerurkar, MD, a Harvard physician whose new book “The 5 Resets” releases early next year.
Dear Dr. Aditi,
What are some super-simple strategies and tips I can employ to feel more calm in my day? Can you offer ideas for some things that are easy for a busy parent like me to start right away that aren’t “too stressful” or don’t feel unattainable, especially heading into holiday season?
– Stressed Parent
Dear Stressed Parent,
With everything happening in the world, it’s easy to feel stressed and overwhelmed in your day-to-day. It also doesn’t help that your role and responsibilities as a parent seem to exponentially grow with the holidays around the corner. Just thinking about the holidays makes me want to crawl into bed and hibernate until January. But there’s a better, more effective way to cope with your growing stress in the short term – and prevent it from worsening in the long term.
You can reset your stress with a little help from the science of the mind-body connection.
You can reset your stress with a little help from the science of the mind-body connection. Never mind the fancy name, the mind-body connection is nothing more than the basic premise that your brain and your body are in constant communication and inextricably linked. What’s good for your body is good for your brain and vice versa. When you do better, you feel better, and it’s all in the doing.
While this may be the first time you’re hearing about the mind-body connection, you’ve experienced it throughout your life, especially during stress. Under stress, your brain sends a stress signal to your body called the fight-or-flight response. This biological response is what you’d describe as “feeling stressed”: racing heart, feeling flushed, quicker breaths, and negative thoughts. This stress response is governed by your amygdala, also known as the primitive part of your brain, which is focused only on survival and self-preservation. Humans may have evolved through millennia, but your stress response is unchanged from when we were cave people fighting or fleeing tigers in the forest. A key difference now is that our modern-day tigers – like parenting stress during the holidays, managing family dynamics, and work stress – don’t just go away after a short, intense battle in the forest. They can linger for months.
Because your amygdala is doing exactly what it was designed to do – protect you from tigers – it stays activated in the background, which results in chronic stress and eventual burnout. So if you’re stressed right now, there’s nothing wrong with you and everything right with you. Your brain and body are working exactly as they should. Give yourself some grace and a healthy dose of self-compassion, and let’s use the science of the mind-body connection to redirect your amygdala and reset your stress, together.
Here are three quick, effective, and free techniques you can use today to manage your stress this holiday season.
1. Diaphragmatic Breathing
Your breath is the gateway to less stress. Your stress response activates quick, shallow breathing. Slowing down your breathing to take deep belly breaths sends a signal to your amygdala to shift away from fight-or-flight mode and toward rest-and-digest mode. Here’s how to practice diaphragmatic breathing:
- Place one or both hands on your belly.
- Inhale slowly through your nose, letting your belly rise up.
- Exhale slowly through your nose or mouth, letting your belly fall.
- Repeat this cycle of diaphragmatic breathing for three breath cycles.
- Take a break, breathe normally, then repeat for a few more cycles.
Slowing down your breath is one of the most effective tools to rewire your brain and body for less stress, because it actively downregulates your stress response in the moment. And did you know that your breath is the only biological, bodily process that’s under voluntary and involuntary control? That’s what makes your breath such a powerful tool to reset your stress.
2. Stop-Breathe-Be Method
Another effective tool to slow down your stress response in the moment is the stop-breathe-be method, which helps strengthen your mind-body connection no matter where you are, whom you’re with, or what you’re doing. When practiced multiple times throughout the day, it can also slow down the runaway train of stress. You can practice this method during any mundane, repetitive task, including doing dishes, wrapping presents, or cooking. You can also use it right before a stressful moment like a holiday party, family visits, booking holiday travel, or shopping for gifts. The instructions are in the name:
- Stop: Take a second and stop the task you’re about to do.
- Breathe: Take a deep breath and ground yourself.
- Be: Just be and get focused on the present moment.
The stop-breathe-be method seems simple, but it’s working at a deep physiological level to reset your stress and rewire your brain and body for more resilience with each opportunity.
3. Movement Meditation
You can also tap into your mind-body connection through a technique called movement meditation. Every day, aim to take a short walk outdoors if possible. Keep a steady pace and focus on your feet as they articulate on the ground. As you walk, keep your mind where your feet are. Your feet have 30 bones and 100 muscles! That’s a lot of power and possibility in one tiny area of your body. Notice your breathing and posture as you walk, too. Start slow; even five minutes a day can make a difference and help you reset your stress. Build up to 20 minutes every day. It’s the same amount of time as a social media scroll. Swap out a scrolling session for some movement meditation instead. This technique helps you get out of your head and back into your body, and it’s a highly effective way to reset your stress from the inside out.
These three simple yet effective techniques can easily fold into your overscheduled life as a busy parent with minimal effort. They each take a small investment of time but can give you a huge payoff when it comes to resetting your stress this holiday season! And if you want more practical, actionable, and science-backed techniques on rewiring your brain and body for less stress and more resilience in 2024, you can preorder my new book “The 5 Resets” today.
– Dr. Aditi