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How to Stay Mentally Healthy During the Holidays

Do the holidays stress you out? You’re not alone. It’s a hectic time of year for many people, maybe even most people.

Nothing about our usual daily life goes away. The holidays add a layer of activities and responsibilities, both real and imagined, that take up time, money and emotional energy. Even if we enjoy many aspects of the season, there may well be moments when we wish we could rewind the calendar to somewhere in the middle of August.

I can’t reverse the calendar, but I can remind you of some strategies for maintaining your sanity during this most pressured time of year.

  • Recognize that the people in your life are who they are. It is not new information who will be the Scrooge, who will drink too much, who will have unrealistic expectations or who will be generous to a fault. No one is going to change just because it’s the holidays. Let go of the idea you can change anyone who bugs you. Find constructive ways to minimize their impact on your life. Put your energy and time into those who know how to love and whose presence makes you happy.
  • Give yourself permission to let some things go. Take a moment each morning to gather your thoughts. Make a list of all the things you have to do and want to do. Check off the two or three items that are really important to you. Let yourself entertain the idea of letting go of many of the others — or at least reducing them in some way. Many of us make our own stress by buying into the “have to’s.”
  • Take time every day to enjoy something about the season. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness of decorating and shopping and baking and wrapping. But are you enjoying any of it? Stop. Breathe. Take a few minutes to enjoy the decorations on the lampposts or to really look at the lights. Savor one of the cookies. Inhale the warm smells coming from your oven. Wrapping a gift can be just another chore or it can be a way to quietly celebrate what the intended receiver means to you.
  • Take care of yourself. We should do this all the time but it’s especially important to get enough sleep, to eat right, and to get some exercise every day when stressed. Self-care is not an “extra,” even though it may seem to take too much time. Time invested in yourself each day will more than pay off in your general sense of well-being throughout the season.
  • Everything in moderation. Be mindful of your own tipping points when it comes to holiday indulgences. You already know your limits for alcohol and sweets. Listen to your own good sense and you’ll avoid waking up with regret, a hangover or an extra five pounds.
  • Stick to your budget. Forty-five percent of those polled in a recent survey done by Think Finance (a provider of payday loans) said that the financial stress of the holidays makes them wish they could skip the whole thing. This was true across all income levels. Yes, it’s difficult to resist the commercialism, the hype, the buy, buy, buy messages that are everywhere. But it’s important to remind ourselves that overspending is not the only way to express love. Gifts that are made by the giver often are more meaningful and treasured than anything that comes from a store. Spending quality time with someone sometimes is the best present of all.
  • Reach out. Lonely? Being alone, far from family or without one during the holidays is a key source of stress for many people. Connect with friends and plan some activities that celebrate the season — even if it’s just enjoying a peppermint stick in a cup of tea. Attend your house of worship and stay if there is a coffee hour. Get into the holiday spirit by volunteering at a soup kitchen or charity event for needy children. Being in a festive atmosphere with other good people who are doing good work is a great antidote for loneliness.
  • Do random acts of kindness. Get into the season of giving. Let someone else have that parking space near the store. Compliment the harried store clerk. Let the mom who is shopping with kids go ahead of you in line. Be generous with street musicians. Doing good will make you feel good — or at least better.
  • Be grateful. Research has shown that taking the time to be grateful every day has enormous physical and mental health benefits. It helps build our immune systems, keeps us in touch with the positive aspects of life, and connects us with others. So keep a holiday gratitude journal. From now until the New Year take a few minutes every day to write down at least three things you are grateful for. They don’t have to be huge events. Sure. If you win the lottery tomorrow, you can be grateful for that. But short of such a windfall, we can be grateful for having enough food to eat or for getting a phone call from a friend or for the neighbor whose holiday lights make us smile.

christmas

The holiday season may be busy, but it doesn’t have to drive us insane. We do have the ability to bring down the stress and bring up the joy. After all, the best gift we can give ourselves and those around us is our own peace of mind.

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Healthy Holiday Gingerbread Cookies

About Molasses
Isn’t it ironic that the waste product of manufacturing white sugar, is a nutrient-rich, low-glycemic syrup? I’m talking about molasses. That gooey, rich, unmistakably black-brown nectar with a rather divisive flavour.
There are a few varieties of molasses, but to understand how they vary, let’s first look at how molasses is made.
Molasses is created from either sugarcane or sugar beets (but because the molasses made from beets can be quite bitter, sugarcane molasses is the most common variety available for human consumption). These plants are harvested, and then cut, crushed, and mashed so that the juice is extracted. “Fancy Molasses” is the first product to be made, but is in fact the only type of molasses that is not a by-product of sugar processing, but instead a direct product from sugar cane. This type is super sweet and is most commonly enjoyed as the syrup straight on pancakes or waffles, and as an ingredient in baked goods.
Varieties of Molasses
The real deal molasses comes from boiling the juice of sugar cane down to crystallize the sugars, producing a concentrate, the first of which is called First Molasses, First Strike Molasses, Barbados Molasses, Light Molasses, Mild Molasses, or Sweet Molasses. This comes from the first boiling of the sugar. It is light in colour and mild in flavour. Some people also enjoy this type directly on their food, like fancy molasses. It is about 65% sucrose.
Next up is Second Molasses, Second Strike Molasses, Dark Molasses, or Full Molasses. As you may have guessed, this is made from the second boiling of the extracted cane juice, a process that extracts even more sugar, producing a darker, thicker syrup typically used as a cooking ingredient in sauces, marinades and baked beans. It is about 60% sucrose.
Blackstrap molasses is likely the one all you health foodies out there know and love. This type of molasses is made by boiling the cane syrup a third time, which extracts even more sugar and concentrates the flavour. By this point, the sucrose content is so low (about 55%) that the syrup no longer tastes sweet, but slightly bitter. The colour is nearly black, and the consistency is very thick and viscous. Blackstrap molasses is used in baking, sauces, stews and even as a food supplement due to its high nutrient content.
Nutritious and Delicious
Blackstrap molasses is highly concentrated in essential minerals, such as iron, calcium, selenium, manganese, potassium, copper, and zinc. As I mentioned above, this type of molasses is sometimes used as a dietary supplement or tonic. One tablespoon stirred into warm water is a food-based way to boost mineral levels, especially iron, as this small amount contains a whopping 20% of your RDI. You can also enjoy it in foods such as smoothies, tea, warm cereal, or dressings, sauces and stews. Remember to eat iron-rich foods with vitamin C to enhance its absorption. I like to use a little lemon juice.
Blackstrap molasses is one of the few sweeteners that is low on the glycemic scale with an index classification of 55. This means that it metabolizes slowly in a controlled way, demands less insulin production and won’t cause a spike in blood glucose levels. All in all, blackstrap molasses is a fantastic, healthy sweetener to which I enthusiastically give a thumbs up!
 
Healthy Holiday Gingerbread
Makes at least 2 dozen medium-sized cookies
Ingredients:
2 ½ / 350g whole spelt flour
¼ tsp. fine grain sea salt
½ tsp. baking powder
1 Tbsp. ground ginger (or less if you prefer more mild gingerbread)
1 ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
5 Tbsp. coconut oil, melted
½ cup / 70g coconut sugar
½ cup / 125ml unsulfured blackstrap molasses
3 Tbsp. unsweetened applesauce
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Directions:

1. Sift the dry ingredients together.
2. In a small saucepan, melt the coconut oil, then whisk in the molasses, applesauce, and vanilla.
3. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry, and fold to combine – you may need to use your hands to mix this, but don’t overwork the dough. Fold just until the ingredients come together evenly. Turn dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap, make a ball, then flatten into a large disc. Wrap and place in the fridge for at least 1 hour.
4. Preheat oven to 350°F / 175°C. Remove dough from the fridge, unwrap and cut in half. Wrap one half and return it to the fridge. Place the other half of the dough between two pieces of baking paper and roll out (if it is very stiff, you may need to let it warm up just slightly). Remove top half of the paper and cut out desired shapes with a cookie cutter or a knife. Slide a knife or thin egg lifter under each shape and place on a lined baking sheet. Ball up the scraps of dough, roll it out between the parchment and start again. Once the dough becomes too warm, return it to the fridge and repeat the entire process with the other half of the chilled dough.
5. Place cookie sheet in the oven and bake for 7-10 minutes (7 minutes produces a softer, chewier cookie, while 10 minutes produces a crispier one). Remove from oven and let cool on pan. Decorate with the Cashew Cacao Icing if desired (recipe follows).

Cashew-Cacao Butter Icing
Makes about ¾ cup
Ingredients:
½ cup / 65g cashews
a few pinches of sea salt
3 Tbsp. / 40g cacao butter, melted
1 ½ Tbsp. raw honey (or liquid sweetener of your choice)
½ vanilla bean, seeds scraped
3 Tbsp. hot water

Directions:

1. Soak cashews with sea salt for four hours, or overnight.
2. Drain, rinse and place cashews in the most powerful blender you have along with all other ingredients. Blend on high until as smooth as possible.
3. Pour into a piping bag and store in the fridge until it firms up, about 2 hours, then use. Store leftovers in the fridge or freezer. If you do not have a piping bag, you can also use sandwich bag with a teeny corner snipped off

When purchasing molasses, read the label to ensure that what you are buying is 100% pure molasses (some companies will cut blackstrap molasses with corn syrup to make it sweeter) and that it is “unsulfured”. Sulfur dioxide can be added to all grades of molasses to help preserve it, as it prevents the growth of bacteria and mould. From a health perspective, sulfur can cause reactions in sensitive people (you can read more about that here). Sulfur dioxide also has a very bitter flavour, and can drastically alter the flavour of the dish you are making. Look for organic molasses whenever possible too.
Store unopened molasses in a cool, dark place for up to one year. Opened containers must be stored in the fridge and will last for up to six months.


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Dogs Face Special Holiday Health Risk

Chocolate is dangerous for dogs — but that risk is highest at Christmas.

A study in the BMJ’s special Vet Edition warns of a “significant peak” in the risk of chocolate poisoning in dogs over the holidays.

Chocolate contains a chemical called theobromine, a stimulant similar to caffeine. Humans can handle it, but it’s nasty stuff for our four-legged friends. It can cause vomiting, diarrhea, increased heart rate and even seizures.

“Humans process it very quickly, so we can eat chocolate with gay abandon,” P-J Noble, a veterinarian at the Small Animal Teaching Hospital in Liverpool, U.K., and one of the authors of the study, told CBC’s Kas Roussy.

“In dogs, they don’t get rid of it very quickly.  It hangs around and builds up to toxic levels very easily.”

Dogs face special dietary health risk during holidays

Researchers have known for some time that chocolate and dogs don’t mix. But Noble and his team wanted to find out whether dog exposure to chocolate was tied to any of the big holidays — Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day or Halloween.

After reviewing millions of electronic health records from 500 vet clinics in the U.K., they found Christmas beat them all when it came to chocolate exposure.

Santa Claus figurines, Advent calendars, and Christmas tree decorations made of chocolate were high on the doggy list of favourites.

But who can blame Fido for sticking his snout where it doesn’t belong? Dogs like sugar, and when it’s on display it’s hard to resist.

One particular furry friend likely made Santa’s naughty list. The study reports that the dog had ingested six Toblerones and six Terry’s Chocolate Oranges.

“I would feel ill after that,” says Noble.

None of the more than 300 cases of chocolate poisoning reported in this study was considered life-threatening, but too much of a good thing can be bad. When ingested in large amounts, chocolate can be fatal for dogs, especially if it’s of the darker variety, Noble said.

So, Merry Christmas to all, say Noble and his colleagues, “but keep the chocolate away from your dog. Because no one wants to be going to the vet on Christmas Day.”

source: www.cbc.ca


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10 Ways To Change Your Holiday Outlook And Fend Off Stress

By drawing on great information available in the latest research, you can change your holiday outlook.

The most wonderful time of the year can become anything but: the pressure to find that perfect gift, financial stress and poor health habits all contribute to why the vast majority of people cite the holidays as a very stressful time. By drawing on great information available in the latest research, you can change your holiday outlook. Even better, you can begin to create habits that transform an entire lifetime. Here are some little changes that can make a big difference in managing holiday stress — a little “New Year’s intention” you can begin before Christmas.

Manage expectations
Expecting that picture-perfect holiday can lead to deep disappointment when reality doesn’t line up. The holidays become an amplified expression of the struggles we face during the rest of the year; the desire to repair a fractured family relationship, a struggle for perfectionism or feeling responsible for others’ happiness can all lead to unreasonable hopes. Instead, work with your holiday mindset and try to see others from a present-time lens. Back away from hot button conversations, and tap into your ability to emotionally roll with whatever challenge happens to show up.

Breathe deeply
It sounds so obvious: “just breathe.” It’s well established that taking deep breaths is the fast track to feeling relaxed and present, but how often do you fully expand your lungs, flushing out all those toxins, activating your relaxation response? Schedule in deep breathing several times per day, well before the holidays become chaotic, to minimize your stress response. How do you know when you’ve hit that therapeutic threshold? Aim for six to eight breathing cycles per minute, depending on what’s comfortable for you.

Focus on experiences, not stuff
While the excitement of opening presents may lead to a surge in the feel-good neurochemical dopamine, research tells us that sharing in new experiences bolsters real happiness long term. The suggestion is that while we can easily tire of objects, memories become internalized, and are a resource we draw on again and again.

Unplug
The more time we spend on social media, the greater the likelihood of low mood or even depression, the latest research suggests. While it may be tempting to check and re-check responses to your posts about your holiday moments, chances are you may be inhibiting happiness. Instead, opt for black out periods throughout the day or putting technology aside altogether. It’s a powerful way to clear the way for authentic connection, real time.

Buy time
The endless gift buying and holiday errands are, for most people, downright stressful. Some researchers would suggest that spending your money on timesaving services might be the answer to becoming stress-free; in fact, participants who did were far happier. But in the age of technology, it isn’t necessary to throw money at the problem. Instead, try purchasing gifts and groceries online, pull back on unreasonable expectations and challenge the perfectionism that can become your holiday mindset.

Lean into your routines and rituals
A review by the American Psychological Association reports that routines and rituals are powerful protective factors, providing a deeply rooted stability to family life. The benefits include stronger marital satisfaction, fewer health problems in children, and increased positive identity in adolescents’, greater academic achievement, and better family relationships overall. Use the routines you’ve already established to maintain a sense of well-being throughout the holidays, and consider the kinds of rituals you’d like to put into practice for years to come.

Exercise
The positive effects of exercise are undeniable; they’re shown to be even more powerful than antidepressants when it comes to the long-term treatment of depression. Fitting in exercise over the holidays will not only counteract holiday blues. It can also provide you with a surge of endorphins, the body’s natural pain reliever.

Pay attention to health symptoms
The latest research reveals a worrisome, if not unnerving, holiday fact: the risk of death on Christmas, Christmas Eve and New Years Day increases by a whopping 5 per cent. The good news is there are ways to protect you against this holiday effect.Pay attention to atypical health symptoms, know where the closest medical facility is and don’t hesitate to forego holiday celebrating to put your health at the forefront.

Smile, for real
Smiling is shown to have both physiological and psychological benefits according to a study on it’s effects. The simple act of putting a pencil in one’s mouth is likely to bolster stress recovery and leave you feeling more positive. The study revealed that the pencil in mouth technique was beneficial regardless of whether the participant was asked to smile or not, but there were slight benefits to intentional smiling.

Last, but not least, count your blessings
We’ve all heard about it. Re-connecting to the core intention of the holidays happens seamlessly when you commit to a practice of gratitude. According to studies by the Grandfather of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, the simple practice of writing down three things that went well each day for one week, can lead to greater happiness for up to six months.

So, if you’re looking to make this holiday the most meaningful yet, reflect on and generously share the true “gifts” you’ve been given. Extend the habit beyond the holidays, and it has the potential to change the emotional tone of your life. And that is, truly, a blessing.

 12/21/2017 
 
Michele Kambolis Clinical Therapist, Author, Parenting Expert, Mind-Body Health Specialist and National Columnist
 


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Does Christmas music turn you into the Grinch?

Does Christmas music put you in the spirit of giving or turn your heart two sizes too small?

If you find yourself relating to a hairy, green, holiday-hating beast known as the Grinch when your ears are filled with the sounds of the season, you’re in good company.

A 2011 Consumer Reports poll found that almost 25% of Americans picked seasonal music as one of the most dreaded aspects of the holiday season, ranking just behind “seeing certain relatives.”

A survey this fall of 2,000 people in the US and Britain by Soundtrack Your Brand, a Spotify-backed company that says it’s on a mission “to kill bad background music,” found that 17% of US shoppers and 25% of British shoppers “actively” dislike Christmas music. Bah! Humbug!

Health benefits of music

When it comes to your health, science says music is good for you. Studies show that music can treat insomnia; lessen the experience of pain (even during dental procedures); reduce your heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety; boost your mood and reduce depression; alter brainwaves and reduce stress; help you slow down and eat less during a meal; help your body recover faster; and engage the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, remembering and making predictions. Many studies say the best type of music for health is classical in nature, full of rich, soothing sounds.

With all those positives, what’s the problem with Christmas tunes?

One reason you might find yourself cringing is oversaturation. Due to “Christmas creep,” music and decorations seem to go up earlier each year, much closer to Halloween than Thanksgiving. That gives you ample time to hear Mariah Carey’s hit “All I Want for Christmas is You” for what seems like the googolplex time before you get far on your shopping list.

It makes sense that too much of anything can cause annoyance, even stress, and put a damper on your holiday spirit, much like a certain famous “nasty, wasty skunk”: “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch … you have all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile … ”

That’s certainly the case for retail workers who are forced to listen to holiday tunes on a seemingly endless loop in the workplace. Soundtrack Your Brand’s survey found that one in six employees believe Christmas music repetition negatively affects “their emotional well-being,” while a full 25% said they felt less festive.

Or … more Grinchy?

Putting aside the auditory attack on holiday retail workers, there’s another way to look at survey statistics: About 75% of us enjoy listening to Christmas music. And it’s not just baby boomer nostalgia that fuels those facts. According to Nielsen’s 2017 Music 360 report, millennials are the biggest holiday music fans (36%), closely followed by Generation X (31%) and then the baby boomers (25%).

Stores use music against you

Retailers are quite aware of those statistics and have learned how best to use our emotions to tap into our wallets.

Studies show that Christmas music, combined with festive scents, can increase the amount of time shoppers spend in stores, as well as their intentions to purchase. It turns out that the tempo of Christmas music plays a role as well.

Faster-paced pieces like “Jingle Bells” will energize shoppers and move them more quickly through a store than retailers might like. That’s why many rely on slower-tempo tunes, like Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song,” to relax shoppers and entice them to spend more time and money.

That makes sense to University of Cambridge music psychologist David Greenberg, who studies the relationship between our cognitive styles and musical preferences. He believes that how you think is an excellent predictor of what music you will like.

According to Greenberg, if you like to analyze rules and patterns in the world, like those that apply to technology, car engines and the weather, you’re probably a “systemizer.” If instead you enjoy focusing on understanding and reacting to the feelings and thoughts of others, you’re likely an “empathizer.”

Want to know your personal thinking/musical style? Take Greenberg’s in-depth quiz 

If you found yourself scoring somewhere in the middle, Greenberg says you’re a “balanced” thinker, and your musical choices will probably contain a mixture of high- and low-energy pieces.

“About a third of us fall into each grouping: systemizer, empathizer and balanced,” Greenberg explained. “But it also depends on gender. Females score higher on empathizing and males on systemizing.”

Just how does that apply to holiday music?

“Empathizers prefer mellow styles of music, soft rock, R&B and soul, music that is slower,” Greenberg said. “It can be sad or nostalgic and certainly has an emotional depth to it. That profile that matches many Christmas songs such as ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,’ songs with features that get you in the Christmas mood.”

A “systemizer,” he says, will like more complex, high-energy music. Examples include hard rock and heavy metal, such as Metallica, The Sex Pistols and Guns N’ Roses. It’s safe to say that most holiday tunes don’t fit into that category.

It’s possible, says Greenberg, that those of us who don’t like Christmas music from the start of the season might fall into the “systemizer” category. Or that you might prefer listening to the more upbeat hits on Billboard’s Holiday 100, such as this year’s No. 2, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee, or No. 4, “A Holly Jolly Christmas” by Burl Ives.

So the next time the sounds and smells of the holiday season start to overwhelm you at your favorite retail store, relax. Understand that it’s all about personal style. Take a tip from the Grinch and let your heart grow – three sizes, perhaps?

By Sandee LaMotte, CNN     Fri December 15, 2017
source: www.cnn.com


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This Year, Consider Giving Presence Instead Of Presents

During the holiday season, many of us feel pressure to find our loved ones the “perfect” gift. Why? Because gift-giving has long been considered a prime way to express love. However, recent research suggests that gestures don’t need to be large or have a hefty price tag to feel meaningful. The study, published this summer in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, suggests that small acts of kindness, not grand overtures, make people feel most loved and supported.

“Our research found that micro-moments of positivity, like a kind word, cuddling with a child, or receiving compassion make people feel most loved,” says Dr. Zita Oravecz, a professor in human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University and one of the study’s researchers.

In the study, 495 men and women between the ages of 18 and 93 completed a questionnaire evaluating 60 possible ways that people can feel love. Each question began with, “Most people feel loved when…” The scenarios included situations like spending time with friends, receiving gifts, and spending time in nature. The survey also included negative interactions, like being controlled and criticized by others. Oravecz says the findings highlight the psychological benefits that intimate relationships can offer. In fact, study participants ranked human interaction as a more significant expression of love than receiving material items, like presents. Connecting with others was also rated more highly than getting positive feedback on the internet, indicating that people derive the most support from personal human contact. In fact, other studies suggest more time on social media leads to increased feelings of isolation. Yet despite the findings that spending time with friends and family makes us feel good, during hectic times like the holidays, these social interactions can feel burdensome instead of fulfilling. Fatigued from an overload of shopping, spending, and travel, most Americans describe this time of year as stressful instead of magical. In fact, a telephone survey conducted by the American Psychological Association showed that compared to other times of the year, 44 percent of women and 31 percent of men (out of 786 individuals polled) feel more stress during the holidays. In addition, 51 percent of women and 42 percent of men said purchasing and giving gifts added to their distress.

Esther Lui for NPR

Small acts of kindness are what make us feel loved.
 

Any kind of stress can strain relationships and cause us to withdraw from others, but small stressors can be just as trying as larger burdens. A 2015 research study found that daily hassles like working, running errands, and money troubles negatively impact romantic unions, causing people to feel less satisfied and more alone in their relationships. When we’re anxious and fatigued, it can also be more challenging to see someone else’s point of view, which might explain why family feuds seem more likely to arise during the holidays. While prioritizing one’s self-care during the months of November and December may be difficult, adopting a mindset of being present in the moment may help lessen the stress of the season.

“During the holidays, anxiety rises, making it harder to remain present with ourselves and others. However, the power of spending time with another person is a gift we can give at any moment,” says Dr. Carla Naumburg, a mindfulness coach and social worker in Newton, Mass.

While we may associate presence with mindfulness meditation, we don’t need to be Zen masters to create a calmer holiday. Naumburg says we can cultivate presence by cutting back on social media (which helps limit distractions), getting plenty of rest, and taking a pause (and remembering to breathe).

“For everyone, breathing is a small but powerful act that can keep us connected to ourselves by shifting our awareness to the present moment,” she says.

According to The American Institute of Stress, focused breathing elicits the body’s “relaxation response,” slowing one’s heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and helping muscles relax. This physical process aids in repairing an overactive nervous system, helping us to enter a calmer physical and emotional state. Although it can be challenging to forgo doing extra errands during the holidays, Naumburg suggests balancing party planning and online shopping with moments of human connection. Activities like reading to a child, meeting a friend for a walk, or taking a moment to call a family member, are ways to express love and care and can keep us emotionally grounded. While the idea of offering loved ones the gift of our time may pale in comparison to giving them a lavish present, recent empathy research shows shared human experiences can tighten social bonds. Oravecz and her colleagues also found that despite personality differences, most people agree on what makes us feel loved — the presence of our loved ones.

Juli Fraga is a psychologist and writer in San Francisco. You can find her on Twitter @dr_fraga.
December 9, 2017    JULI FRAGA
 
source: www.npr.org


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Five Ways Christmas Affects Your Brain

Christmas is a time of year like no other; gifts are exchanged, little-spoken-to relatives are contacted, and appetising treats are consumed with great gusto. Christmas can be both a time of stress and a time of relaxation. But whether you love or hate Christmas it’s pretty difficult to avoid – and so your brain may be altered by the experience one way or another. Here are some of the main facets of the Christmas experience, and how they might affect your brain.

The festive spirit: The joy surrounding Christmas may influence some of the chemicals in your brain (dopamine and serotonin) which affect your happiness levels. Dopamine is known to be involved with reward-driven behaviour and pleasure seeking and serotonin is thought to increase our feelings of worth and belonging. So when people talk about “Christmas cheer” they may be on to something.

In fact, researchers at the University of Copenhagen conducted an imaging study to try and find the “centre” of the Christmas spirit in the human brain. Here, participants were shown Christmas-themed images and, in those participants who actively celebrated Christmas, there was increased brain activation in the sensory motor cortex, the premotor and primary motor cortex, and the parietal lobule. Previously these brain areas have been associated with spirituality, bodily senses and recognising facial emotions. While these results should be interpreted with some caution, it is interesting to note the physical effects that feeling festive can exert on your brain.

christmas

Stress: Not everyone finds Christmas an entirely joyful and festive time – many people find it very stressful. In fact, the burdens of navigating through a busy shopping centre to find the ideal gift for your other half, or of cooking the perfect turkey for a house full of hungry people, is enough to rattle even the calmest person. Stress can exert a physical response in your body, with the automatic release of adrenaline and cortisol. Further, cortisol has been shown to have a profound effect on the hippocampus, which may decrease your memory and ability to multitask.

Giving gifts: The giving and receiving of gifts is an age-old Christmas tradition and there’s no better feeling than seeing your loved one’s eyes light up when you’ve found the perfect gift for them. But why does giving make us feel so good? Generosity has been linked with the reward circuitry of our brain, causing the release of dopamine and endorphins. Researchers have described a “helpers’ high”, which is experienced after giving. The chemicals that cause this high can reduce stress and increase your desire to repeat these acts of kindness. So, while you may resent being out of pocket after buying your great aunt that pair of slippers, your brain at least ensures that you are compensated with a chemical reward.

Bonding with family and friends: The quintessential Christmas experience involves sitting around a table with your loved ones. In fact, it’s hard to even imagine the festive period without thinking of your family and friends. The bond between you and those special to you can result in the release of a hormone called oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin – sometimes referred to as the “cuddle hormone” – drives maternal behaviour, trust, and social attachment. As such, this hormone may help towards explaining that warm, fuzzy feeling you get at Christmas when surrounded by those you love and trust.

Overindulging: Indulging in our favourite food and drinks is all part of the Christmas experience – but overeating can affect your brain. It has been shown to activate a pathway linking the hypothalamus in the brain to the immune system. This leads to an immune response and low-grade inflammation, which may explain why you can feel unwell after eating too much. Of course, this doesn’t do much harm to your body after one extravagant Christmas meal – but, when overeating becomes a long-term issue, this inflammation can become chronic, and contribute to Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

But for now, don’t worry too much if you’ve got Christmas on the brain, you’ll soon be back to your usual self come January.

December 21, 2016     Kira Shaw    Postdoctoral Researcher in Neuroscience, University of Sussex