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Let’s Talk about Mental Health: Stress and the holiday season

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By Shannon Steele EBS Behavioral Health Columnist

“To be ‘well’ is not to live in a state of perpetual safety and calm, but to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure, or excitement, back to safety and calm, and out again. Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for you.” – Emily Nagoski, “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle”

Contrary to what commercial advertising, streets filled with twinkling lights, Buddy from “Elf,” and “Jingle Bell Rock” tell you, it may not feel like “the most wonderful time of the year.” The holidays often bring up a slew of emotions, especially for those used to grinding through what is likely the most hectic time of year. Let’s just say the only thing you may be looking forward to this holiday season is Jan. 1. 

The holiday season can make us feel warm, excited, messy, sad, lonely, confused and overwhelmed all at once. Whatever may be coming up for you, it is important to acknowledge that our nervous systems have been through the wringer over the past 23 months. 

A January 2021 Stress in America survey identified the most common sources of stress and found that anxiety, sadness and anger were the top three most common emotions. 

COVID-19 and the first shelter-in-place hit the U.S. in March of 2020 resulting in a ripple of consequences: a state of emergency, stay-at-home orders, essential workers continuing to work through uncertainty, while thousands of others were laid-off, school transitioned to virtual education, a high death toll and loss of loved ones. Amidst the pandemic is political unrest and racial injustice, compounding what was already a uniquely stressful state of being. Oftentimes we are able to compartmentalize stressors in our lives, “Not now. I need to deal with that later.” The thing about chronic, collective and prolonged stress, however, is that it weighs heavy on our nervous systems and those emotions we are putting in a box, high on a shelf can get stuck.

Under normal conditions, a stressor (coming upon a grizzly bear while hiking) activates the fight-or-flight response and your survival instincts kick in: heart rate increases, pupils dilate, blood flow moves to your arms and legs, hormones are released, and there’s a burst of adrenaline mobilizing you to fight (whipping out your bear spray) or run in the opposite direction. 

Once the threat of the bear has passed, your relaxation response ignites, returning your blood pressure, heart rate, digestive functioning and hormones to normal levels. In this scenario, running or fighting allowed your body to discharge the energy and emotion (fear) built up from the stressful situation, and your nervous system returned to an even-keel, groovy state. 

However, because of the last 23 abnormal months, we are collectively experiencing chronic and prolonged stress resulting in a wacked out nervous system. You may be feeling hyper-aroused (anxious, unable to relax, restless, emotional, irritable and angry) or hypo-aroused (depressed, flat, tired and disconnected). This type of unresolved stress can have real physical health consequences: headaches, chronic pain, catching a cold, having difficulty sleeping and more. Additionally, prolonged stress has a negative effect on thinking clearly, logically and making good decisions.

While Big Sky ramps up for the holiday season, it is important to remember that our bodies need to slow down and take time to reset so we can avoid getting stuck and return to a calm, baseline state. 

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