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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
 


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5 Holiday Spices That Could Help Boost Health

The holidays are here, and we are all getting ready to head into the kitchen to make that favorite meal. Most of us associate holiday food with overindulgence and sneaking in ingredients that we would not normally eat. Thankfully, some holiday dishes are actually loaded with healthy ingredients. Many of the spices used around the holidays have unknown health benefits and should be enjoyed this holiday season. Use this list of holiday spices in your favorite dishes this season.

Cinnamon

Pumpkin pie, sweet potato soufflé and many other holiday desserts are home to this aromatic spice. Cinnamon is best known for its warming smell and helps us identify the arrival of the holiday season. Cinnamon has a number of health benefits, many of them stemming from compounds in cinnamon oil. There are two types of cinnamon, Cassia cinnamon which is more widely available, and Ceylon or Chinese cinnamon.

Derived from the bark of the cinnamon tree, cinnamon has been found to contain a high level of manganese, a mineral important in blood sugar regulation. In fact, cinnamon has been shown to lower glucose and lipid levels in diabetics. Cinnamon also has antimicrobial and anti fungal properties, with some studies showing that it is effective against candida. Finally, cinnamon may play a role in Alzheimer’s prevention. (1,2)

While the doses of cinnamon needed to exert a therapeutic effect can range from 6-10 grams, an amount tough to get in your favorite recipes, adding cinnamon through your favorite dishes can help to build that “healthy” factor in your holiday recipes.

Nutmeg

Originating in Indonesia, nutmeg is derived from a tree now found in the Caribbean and South India. Nutmeg is a high mineral spice, containing magnesium, potassium and zinc. It has been used as a brain booster, since two compounds derived from nutmeg, myristicin and macelignan, have been found to balance neural pathways and may be able to improve focus. The rich magnesium content of nutmeg has also been found to help with relaxation and sleep. (3)

There are many other home remedies associated with nutmeg, including using the spice as a pain reliever or for indigestion. Mixing nutmeg with some honey has been used to heal acne, while mixing with chick pea flour is thought to remove blackheads. Too many holiday sweets? Try using the essential oil to help boost focus.

spicerack

Ginger

One of the best known digestive aids, ginger contains the active compound gingerol, which has been shown to help indigestion, nausea and vomiting. This same compound also has anti-inflammatory properties, assisting in relief of joint pain and inflammation. (4)

Fresh ginger contains more active gingerol than dried ginger and can be kept in the fridge for up to three weeks or in the freezer for as long as six months. Add grated or sliced fresh ginger to your teas, sweets and stews to lower your inflammatory load this holiday season.

Star Anise

An original Chinese spice, star anise comes from the fruit of a tree in China. Chinese star anise is thought to have health benefits, while Japanese star anise is poisonous. The health benefits of star anise are traced back to the compound shikimic acid, which resembles the drug ostelmavir, used to fight the flu. Star anise has anti fungal and anti-candida properties as well.

Star anise is often used to flavor teas and desserts, while the essential oil is used in many perfumes. Consider adding this aromatic spice to your favorite holiday dishes to balance your sugar load and risk for Candida, a yeast that naturally occurs in our microbiome, but can get out of balance with overindulgence!

Cardamom

Both a digestive aid and an antiseptic, the essential oil of cardamom is one of the few spices that has high amounts of iron and manganese. The oil of cardamom can be used topically to heal infections and as an anesthetic. In many countries, the entire pod of cardamom was boiled with ginger and other spices to relieve digestive discomfort after dinner. (5)

Today, cardamom is used in many desserts, drinks and rice dishes throughout the Middle East. Add this spice to your kitchen cabinet and add the essential oil to your first aid kit.

Enjoy this holiday season and experiment with spices from around the world. These spices can help navigate the continuum between health and holiday excess, helping us all to have a healthy holiday season.

sources:
1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26560460
2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26475130

3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25917324
4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26403321
5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25593391

Posted: 12/03/2015    Tasneem Bhatia, M.D. 

Dr. Taz MD, Back to the Heart of Medicine. Best selling Author, Integrative Health Expert, Prevention/Wellness


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7 Ways to Fend Off Holiday Stress (and Stay Grateful!)

By: Jordyn Cormier     November 30, 2015

The holidays are the most joyous time of the year, right? Well for some of us, what should be a pleasant season filled with laughter and mirth turns into a 90 day stress marathon. But do the holidays really have to be strangled by a glittering tinsel of stress? Absolutely not. Here are 7 tactics to fend off holiday stress and truly embrace the holidays.

Eat mindfully. Instead of stuffing your face — which is absurdly easy to do — really work on tasting your holiday treats. The holidays aren’t just about eating. Slow down, connect with your loved ones, make memories. Sure, food is a part of the equation, but that doesn’t mean you have to be constantly eating. Enjoy yourself mindfully and in moderation to skip the guilt that tends to accompany overindulging.

Make room for yourself. Everyone needs something during the holidays, and you may especially feel the pressure to give even more of yourself than usual. However, if giving your friend a ride to an appointment is going to throw off the rest of your day and flood your constricting vessels with stress, it’s best to practice saying ‘no’. Helping out loved ones is lovely, but you shouldn’t sacrifice your own well being to accommodate others. Treat yourself well, and then you’ll be able to treat your loved ones well. If you burn out, you’ve done a disservice to both yourself and those who rely on you. Make room for ‘you time’: take a bubble bath, go to yoga, see a concert, indulge in a trashy novel. Enjoy the season without spreading yourself too thin.

Stop worrying about money. If you’re a little low on spare cash this year, it can be easy to get swept up in the dismay of not being able to afford gifts for your loved ones. Don’t get sucked into the commercialism of the holidays. If you can afford nice gifts, great. If you cannot, use your ingenuity. Buy a book from a thrift store, make a piece of jewelry out of found items, craft a collage, write a song — explore your own creativity! Money isn’t everything, so stop stressing about it. It really is the thought that counts.

How to Stay Healthy at Christmas

Stay positive. Money, work, deadlines, relationships, crowded shopping centers, chores, bills, that incessant holiday music that’s been playing since Halloween — there are plenty of things that can get you irritated or down over the holidays. But, negativity is a vicious cycle and will only serve to increase your stress. Try to work on some self-affirmations or emotional resetting exercises. Your mind is a powerful tool that has the complete control to stop a cycle of negative thinking. Know this — you are good enough, your problems are not insurmountable, and holiday joy is all around you just waiting to be enjoyed. Use whatever works for you to get your outlook back on track. If imagining Ryan Gosling standing in front of you in a Santa cap is what keeps you with a positive outlook, hey, no one’s judging…

Stay humble. Feelings of humility and gratefulness have actually been shown to drastically improve your well being. Those who focus on their blessings rather than their obstacles are better equipped to handle stress. “…to the extent that gratitude, like other positive emotions, broadens the scope of cognition and enables flexible and creative thinking, it also facilitates coping with stress and adversity.” (source) Be regularly thankful for all that you have, and the world will seem a whole lot brighter and more manageable.

Be accepting of others. Everyone is different and beautifully unique. The holidays are a time to embrace these differences and celebrate them. Try to take a step back from disagreements and arguments and attempt to understand the other person’s perspective. Instead of getting bogged down by minor disputes, turn down your ego and try to come to a peaceful compromise. We are all very human and so very flawed. Let’s accept and celebrate that.

Accept yourself. Most of our stress and negativity comes from within. We may project it upon others, but we are much more capable of handling outside stress when we are happy with ourselves. This is a lifelong journey, but the sooner you learn to love the person you are, the happier and more peaceful your life will be. Let your true, positive self shine this holiday season and good vibes will bounce back.

Stress can be a difficult obstacle to acknowledge, and an even more difficult one to overcome. But don’t let it thwart the joy of the holidays! By practicing mindful techniques and focusing on the positive, you can be a glowing entity of holiday cheer rather than a furry little grinch. Feel the joy and enjoy the fruits of the holidays!