Toddlers have long used “blankies” to help them feel secure, dry tears, and fall asleep quickly.
Now, some adults with insomnia, depression, and anxiety are rediscovering that feeling of security — for a price – in the form of weighted blankets.
But can a little extra weight really help you sleep better?
Leslie Kosco, 56, an oncology nurse in Indianapolis, thinks so. For the past 3 months, she has snuggled under her light gray, 20-pound weighted blanket. She bought it after reading that it could improve sleep and lower anxiety.
“It gives me the feeling that someone is hugging me, and making me feel calmer,” she says. “I think my sleep is better.” The anxiety? “Well, you know,” she laughs. She works with cancer patients, and she and her partner have an active 9-year-old.
She has no idea how the blanket works but is happy it does.
What Is a Weighted Blanket?
Weighted blankets are usually filled with plastic pellets to add weight, ranging from about 4 to 25 pounds. You pick the heaviness of the blanket based on your own weight. Prices range from about $120 to $249 or more.
People compare a weighted blanket’s “hug” to the feeling of the X-ray ”apron” the dentist puts on you, says David Fuchs, CEO of BlanQuil, one of the makers of weighted blankets.
Other companies include Gravity Blanket, Mosaic Weighted Blankets, and SensaCalm. Fuchs launched his product in December 2017, after he searched for something to help his adult daughter improve her sleep.
“It secures you in one place,” Fuchs says. “It seems to help people sleep by the calming effect of feeling like they are being held.”
Mike Grillo, managing director of Gravity Blanket, says they shipped more than 50,000 weighted blankets in 2017. That was after the Brooklyn-based startup raised $4.7 million on Kickstarter from late April to late May, 2017.
Laura LeMond says she founded Mosaic Weighted Blankets in 2010 after designing a blanket to meet her own needs for better sleep.
She says the trend has taken off in the past 2 years. At least a half-dozen companies sell them now.
What the Research Shows
Grillo says there aren’t many independent studies of the blankets for adults that are reviewed by independent researchers and published in reputable medical journals.
In one study funded by the blanket makers, Swedish researchers found that 31 men and women with moderate insomnia who used the blankets for 2 weeks reported a calmer night’s sleep with fewer movements. They believe the blankets helped them sleep more comfortably and securely, and they had higher-quality sleep.
Researchers have looked at how the blankets affect mental health patients. A study from 2015 found that after 32 adults used a 30-pound blanket, 63% reported lower anxiety and 78% preferred the weighted blanket to calm down.
Weighted blankets offer deep pressure stimulation, a form of touch pressure that feels like a firm hug, a massage, or swaddling. While research on weighted blankets is sparse, deep pressure stimulation has been found to calm adults and children with anxiety, autism, and attention difficulties, researchers say.
A Doctor Weighs In
Raj Dasgupta, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California and a spokesman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, says the blankets may help people with chronic pain sleep better, as well as those with anxiety or depression.
It gives me the feeling that someone is hugging me, and making me feel calmer.
Leslie Kosco of Indianapolis
“It’s like having the best hug for a long period of time,” he says. And, he says, it may be ”a good alternative to life-long sedative hypnotic medications (sleeping pills) at night.”
But he cautions that the weighted blanket is not the cure-all for improving sleep.
“You also have to pay attention to the foundation of good sleep hygiene,” he says. That means using the bedroom only for sleep and sex, turning off electronics before bedtime, and keeping the lighting, sounds, and temperature conducive to sleep.
While some research has looked at 30-pound blankets, there is no data behind the “right fit.” The companies suggest you pick one that is about 10% of your body weight so it will not be too heavy, says LeMond of Mosaic. “And for kids, it’s 10% of body weight plus 1-2 pounds,” she says.
Grillo similarly suggests a target of 7% to 12% of your body weight.
Article: Seeking Better Sleep Under a Weighted Blanket
Leslie Kosco, 56, oncology nurse, Indianapolis.
Mike Grillo, managing director, Gravity Blanket.
David Fuchs, CEO, BlanQuil.
Laura LeMond, founder, Mosaic Weighted Blankets.
Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders: “Positive Effects of a Weighted Blanket on Insomnia.”
Occupational Therapy in Mental Health: “Exploring the Safety and Therapeutic Effects of Deep Pressure Stimulation Using a Weighted Blanket.”
Consumer Reports: “Sheets Buying Guide,” “Higher Thread Count Doesn’t Guarantee Better Sleep.”
Harvard Health Publishing: “What type of mattress is best for people with low back pain?”
Mayo Clinic: “Pregnancy week by week,” “Sleep Apnea.”
National Sleep Foundation: “Find Out What You Really Should Be Wearing to Bed,” “Hear,” “Touch,” “The wrong pillow can be a real pain in the neck — not to mention a barrier to a good night’s sleep. So find the right fit,” “How to Choose Your Ideal Sheets,” “Americans’ Bedrooms Are Key To Better Sleep According To New National Sleep Foundation Poll,” “Choosing a Mattress: Everything You Need to Know.”
The Better Sleep Council: “Starfish or Freefall? What Your Sleep Position Can Tell You.”
National Institute of Mental Health: “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.”
MedlinePlus: “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.”
National Institute of Mental Health: “Role of Research in Improving the Understanding and Treatment of Anxiety Disorders.”
National Institute of Mental Health: “Treatment of Anxiety Disorders.”
National Institute of Mental Health: “How to Get Help for Anxiety Disorders.”
Sherman, K. Depression and Anxiety, May 2010.
Pilkington, K. Autonomic Neuroscience, October 2010.
Lakhan, S. Nutrition Journal, October 2010.
Saeed, S. American Family Physician, August 2007.
National Institute of Mental Health: “Panic Disorder.”
National Institute of Mental Health: “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
National Institute of Mental Health: “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.”
National Institute of Mental Health: “Social Phobia.”
National Institute of Mental Health: “Specific Phobias.”
Can a Weighted Blanket Help You Sleep Better?
We Tested One For a Month to Find Out
Judging by social media and other chatter, one of the impactful talks at TED 2019—held in Vancouver in April—was Matthew Walker’s “You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep—and it’s Killing You.”
Walker, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, has been encouraging people to take sleep more seriously for a few years now, arguing that, short-term, a lack of sleep messes with our memory, appetite and immune systems, and, long-term, could make us more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer. That got people’s attention.
Shouldn’t we already know that sleep is an important thing, though? We all know the joy of a solid, uninterrupted eight hours, right? And, on the flip side, anyone who’s ever experienced a sleep disorder—roughly 40 per cent of Canadians, including me—is keenly aware that it’s not just the frustration in the middle of the night that’s a problem, it’s the fact that the next day’s largely a write-off, thanks to a haze of brain fog.
What is it that keeps people like me up? Anxiety? Stress? Depression? It might be a complex interplay of things, explains Dr. Christine Purdon, Director of Clinical Training of the PhD program in Clinical Psychology at the University of Waterloo and co-director of the Anxiety Studies Division, who says that insomnia is characteristic of a number of mental health problems.
“Some people have trouble sleeping because their thoughts race and they’re worried that they’re not going to be able to manage the challenges of the next day,” says Purdon. “So, they’re trying to problem-solve, but they can’t do anything about it at two in the morning in their bed, so the thoughts keep racing and then they get anxious. And you can’t sleep when you’re anxious because you’ve got cortisol running through your body.”
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that jacks up our blood sugar, suppresses our immune system and gets us ready to run away from predators—a built-in alarm, starting at the amygdala, a part of the brain that sends distress signals to other parts of the brain. Although our modern anxiety is more likely to be about deadlines or office politics than sabre-tooth tigers, we still make cortisol when the amygdala senses danger.
Purdon’s description is exactly how I feel at 5 a.m., hopelessly trying to get back to sleep with Jedi mind tricks. I should say, though, that I’ve been pretty lucky to have fewer (and shorter) bouts of insomnia over the past several years. Whereas, I once had torturous two- or three-week spells a few times a year, it’s down to a sporadic few nights a month. I attribute a lot of that to keeping more regular hours and paying attention to the quality of mattresses and light “noise” in the room.
I’d like to get it down to zero, though, so I’m always on the look-out for new strategies for better sleep. As such, when Sleep Country Canada offered to send me a Snuggable Weighted Blanket ($199 plus tax) to try out, I took them up on it.
Day One: The package tells me this 230-thread count, 15-pound blanket will “create a feeling of being hugged,” as well as “reduce chronic stress and high levels of anxiety” and “may increase serotonin and melatonin levels and decrease cortisol levels…to promote a better sleep.” The key word here is “may.” There really isn’t a lot of peer-reviewed research confirming the many anecdotal stories circulating that it’s helpful for anxiety and/or sensory processing disorders.
First night: Even if you think you have a pretty good idea as to what 15 pounds feels like, picking up this blanket produces cognitive dissonance—it’s way heavier than it looks. It’s also only five feet long, so you have to choose between covering your chest or your feet. Initially, I thought it was a non-starter, since it felt less like “hugging” and more like being trapped. Despite my concerns, I slept well.
Week Two: The weird thing is, you adjust to the weight pretty quickly—for me, I was actually looking forward to the sensation of added weight by the end of the first week. I was sleeping more on my back and moving around less, which is obviously a good thing
Week Three: Insomnia strikes. For me, it’s never about getting to sleep but, rather, staying asleep. I’ll wake up at 4 a.m. and that’s when the thoughts start racing. This generally lasts several hours, but, all four nights that it happened to me that week I was able to get back to sleep in under 15 minutes.
Month’s End: After a month with no insomnia, I’m a convert. I still have some trepidation, since I’ve had a lot of vivid dreams—sometimes too vivid. I’m also worried about whether or not it’ll be too hot in, say, mid-July.
I’m also worried it might not last. What if my good sleeps are just a placebo effect? As Dr. Purdon points out, without more studies, we can’t know. She can, however, imagine a theory for how a weighted blanket might work to alleviate some symptoms of anxiety.
“I have heard of people using weighted blankets and enjoying them,” she says. “I think that if it gives a safety signal—like that kind of warm sense of being bundled—I think it’s possible that sensation can make somebody feel safer and down-regulate the amygdala and get rid of the anxiety, which could help you get back to sleep.”
Still, Purdon warns that people shouldn’t get their hopes up that a blanket, no matter how good, will be life-transforming, even if future research does support the theory.
“I do have a fair bit of skepticism about things that come onto the market making big claims,” she says. “I don’t think there are quick fixes for anything. I think it’s great if some people try something and it helps them. But I don’t think something like that is going to cure anybody’s anxiety problems, that’s for sure.”
How do you define resiliency?
Many define resiliency as the ability to bounce back from a setback. Some refer to it as one’s ability to push through difficult times.
Following a keynote speech recently, this definition of resiliency was shared: Putting the pieces of a dropped vase back together as close to the original form as possible, knowing that sometimes it’s impossible to put things back exactly, which results in the creation of a new normal.
Awareness – While the above definitions provide some insight on resiliency, they don’t explain how a person develops it. A person who doesn’t bounce back quickly may be judged by some as being weak. As well, these kinds of definitions can imply that resiliency is something a person has or doesn’t have, which isn’t true. Resiliency is a trainable skill and, like all skills, requires practise for mastery and to maintain top performance.
I prefer to think of the term resiliency as a verb, which requires building up resiliency reserves so they can be drawn upon in difficult times. However, we all have a limit to our resiliency reserve levels, and asking for support to get through a difficult time is not a sign of weakness.
Accountability – Building resiliency reserve levels requires accepting that what we do daily influences them. We don’t get physically fit by thinking about it; it requires actions such as exercising, eating a healthy diet and getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
Action – One proactive approach for building resiliency is to adopt a daily resiliency hierarchy: actions that can have a positive impact on resiliency.
The following resiliency hierarchy is an example of seven things that, when done daily, can build resiliency. Although each action is helpful, it’s suggested that you start with one and work your way up to practising all seven each day.
Acknowledge others – None of us can get through life alone. Recognizing, acknowledging and thanking the people we interact with daily can help to build and maintain our relationships, as well as expand our social connections.
Gratitude – Take a moment each day to be grateful for three good things you have in your life. Life is challenging, and not everything may be the way we want it to be. Being grateful for all the things we have can remind us how fortunate we are.
Movement – We can improve our mental health and resiliency levels by increasing our movement, because of the mind-body connection. Movement includes walking, running, exercise, recreational activities and sports. Set daily goals and count your movement minutes or steps.
Self-acceptance – Self-acceptance is being aware of your strengths and weaknesses. None of us will or can be perfect. Learn to be okay with who you are and your weaknesses. Stop any negative or self-critical talk that only creates hurt and serves no real purpose.
Nutrition – What we put in our mouth feeds our brain, where our thoughts and feelings come from. Our lifestyle and nutritional choices matter for both our mental and physical health. They also affect our resiliency reserve levels. Making good choices one meal at a time doesn’t have to be hard. Cut out processed foods, and focus on eating meals high in fibre, healthy fats and good sources of protein.
Hope – Without a plan, there can be no hope. Having one or two clearly defined goals for what you want in life can give a positive focus and purpose for each day. Purpose can be a source of energy that pushes us toward the things we want in life.
Sleep – Perhaps one of the most important things we can do to build resiliency is to ensure we get at least seven to eight hours of sleep a day. Without proper sleep we put our physical safety and mental health at risk.
So many of us overlook the direct relationship between our body and our mind, according to Yu Dan Shi, author of the book, Come Alive – Live a Life with More Meaning and Joy.
The truth is that when our body isn’t performing well, it’s unlikely we can feel well at an emotional level, added Yu Dan.
Yu Dan cited 2017 research from Australian National University which shows that working longer than 39 hours a week puts your health at risk if you also spend more than 28 hours a week in caring or domestic work.
These people will more likely experience mental illness and symptoms of distress, such as feeling nervous, anxious or down.
“Given many professionals and business owners work more than 40 hours a week, what this tells us is working more is not the answer; we need to work smarter,” said Yu Dan.
“Work-life balance is not a new topic. However, what we seldom explore is the fact that it’s not easy for people to achieve work-life balance – unless they have been taught how.
“We are creatures of habit. We can’t change the way we work or live overnight. It’s a skill.”
The reality is the majority of the workforce has never been taught how to work in a healthier way or how to perform at an optimal level, according to Yu Dan. Most of us have only ever been taught how to work harder.
“I was so burnt out in 2008 that it took an emergency operation to force me to look at things differently. My doctor explicitly told me that my life-threatening illness was the result of stress,” she said.
“To the outside world, I was a positive, strong, resilient mother and leader, but I suffered internally and lacked the tools to manage the situation. I see this happen over and over through my coaching practice, how talented individuals find difficult to cope due to unhealthy working habits.”
|Worryingly, the majority of employees have never been taught how to work in a more authentic fashion|
According to Yu Dan, there is a limit to how much and how hard we can work. Like a fuel tank, our energy needs to be topped up, or they will run out.
When people work long hours, there is not enough time for rest and renewal. In reality, the faster we know how to recover and renew ourselves, the faster and more consistently we reach the optimal performance. Elite sports people have mastered this approach.
Yu Dan added that over the past 10 years, sleep has become the secret weapon of more and more Olympic competitors. Dr Mark Rosekind, who has helped gold medalists optimise their sleep, explains in an interview with the Huffington Post that science has shown our performance will suffer if we don’t have enough rest.
“Once we understand slowing down creates better performance, I have found people are much more willing to improve how they work and live,” she said.
Yu Dan outlined four daily habits that can make a huge difference to energy, wellbeing and happiness:
Many people jump into the reacting mode from the moment they get up. If most of our hours are spent reacting, we are likely to feel exhausted and out of control. I have often suggested my clients begin their day with the things they want to achieve first, instead of simply reacting.
Learn to rest
Have you ever felt that two hours of good work is better than 20 hours of poor work? It’s likely that you were rested to do the work. If you feel less motivated to do something, it might be an indication that your energy is running low. Instead of blaming yourself for lacking perseverance, take a break.
Be in nature
Research shows that being in nature refreshes us and increases our cognitive performance. It can be as simple as including a daily walk in your routine. I have often suggested my clients have meetings outside their office, whether in an open café or turn a sitting meeting into a walking meeting.
Do something fun
Research has shown that having fun reduces stress, keeps us energetic, and increases more job satisfaction. When I play with my dog silly at the park, I always walk home feeling much more energetic and happier. On the surface, some activities seem non-productive, when in fact, they provide vital recovery time.
We all want to succeed. But we don’t have to sacrifice our happiness and wellbeing in the process. Once people learn to work and live in a more optimal way, not only they become happier, but also they sustain success for much longer.
Are the holidays the season of excitement or a time for anxiety and frustration?
Here are expert tips to get you past the stress and into the festive spirit.
Get adequate sleep
It’s no secret that our bodies crave rest; fail to get enough, and you’ll have some nasty symptoms. Not only does adequate rest—at least seven to eight hours per night—recharge your body for the day ahead, it also gives your nervous system a chance to wind down and reset as well. For those who suffer from anxiety symptoms, a lack of sleep can make you much more anxious. No one wants that around the holidays, warns Barbara Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the co-author of Teenage As A Second Language. She tells Reader’s Digest, “We must all keep in mind that the holidays can be quite overwhelming as well as exciting. Because we are going to be expending a lot of energy during the holidays we must take care of ourselves. That way, we are less likely to become physically sick and emotionally overwhelmed during the holiday season.” Go ahead and go to bed early—chances are you’ll be better able to handle whatever comes your way in the morning.
Give your body the boosts it needs
The typical American diet can leave you short on nutrients your body needs to function at its fullest potential, and sometimes it needs a boost that food is not providing. During stressful times such as the holidays or busy seasons, it’s important to pay close attention to cues your body is sending about its status. Supplements such as magnesium (almost 80 percent of the population is deficient), zinc, and fish oil can deliver the nutrients your body needs to keep running efficiently. Magnesium helps to relax muscles and decrease anxiety. Zinc will help to boost your immune system during the colder months, and the omega-3 oils in fish oil are powerful anti-inflammatories that provide an overall sense of well-being.
Give yourself the gift of self-care
In the midst of the seasonal rush, it’s easy to forget about your own health. Make time for a daily routine—even if it’s just 15 minutes—of doing something relaxing. Whether that’s pulling out the yoga mat, steeping a cup of your favorite herbal tea, or simply reading a good book, the time you give yourself out of your busy day will make a huge difference in your outlook. Kim Fredrickson, a marriage and family therapist and author of the new book Give Your Kids A Break: Parenting With Compassion For You and Your Children, agrees. She advises, “Treat yourself with compassion. It’s important to treat yourself kindly regarding all the extra pressures and activities you’re dealing with.” She continues, “Come up with a plan to take care of yourself as you head into the holidays. Try getting enough sleep, eat as healthy as possible, take time for a daily walk, and set things aside that can wait until January or February.”
Accept what you can control and release the rest
If you struggle with anxious feelings, you may also have control issues. So when the to-do list becomes overwhelming, that’s the time to step back and assess what is reasonable and what you have to let go of. If you’re hosting a dinner and you know that gluten-free Aunt Martha will complain that she can’t have the stuffing, kindly suggest that she might want to bring a side she’ll be able to enjoy. Fredrickson recommends making a list of the things you feel are top priorities, to keep your focus on what matters most. She says, “What’s important? Think about what is really important as you approach the holidays. Make sure your list includes things that are important to you, rather than only focusing on creating good experiences for your family.”
Do what you can from the comfort of home
There’s never been a better time to get things done without getting out of your pajamas. Sure, the Internet has its drawbacks, but there’s no question it’s made life easier for shopping. Tap the wonders of the web to order your groceries and gifts online. Some grocery services will deliver to your door, while some require that you pick up your order; either way, the time you’ll save is priceless. With online gift-wrapping options, it’s never been easier to have gifts sent directly to the relatives. Consider yourself a tech genius this season and eliminate your to-do list worries.
Delegate the details
If you’re facing a panicked rush to get things done, why not hand off some of the to-do lists to your spouse? If you know you’ll never be able to wrap every gift on time or schedule the carpet cleaning you’ve been putting off, recruit help. The same goes for holiday meals. While it’s true that the host often provides much of the main meal, why not ask people on the guest list to provide a side or dessert? Dr. Greenberg advises, “There are no prizes for doing everything on your own. Delegate. Remember people should come together during the holidays and help each other, right?”
Know your limits and respect them
Do memories of holidays past leave you shuddering with a sense of dread? If so, it’s time to learn from past mistakes, and vow to do things differently this year. If hosting the holiday festivities is simply too much of a strain on you or your family, ask someone else to take it on this year. Stress and anxiety can make even the most well-intentioned hostess less than jolly, and chances are good that there’s someone in your family who would love the chance to show off their culinary skill. Dr. Greenberg tells Reader’s Digest, “Know your limits. If it is difficult to be with your family for too long before you start getting irritable with each other, then set a time limit in advance. Believe me, you will be grateful that you did this! Do not expect that this year your family will get along perfectly and that old grudges will be forgotten. Unfortunately, we tend to regress when we are with our families during the holidays and old issues from years ago rear their heads.”
Make time to move
While it might seem counter-intuitive to add exercise to your daily routine during a time of extra activity, it doesn’t have to be strenuous. Activity reduces blood pressure and stress, and a short walk around the block can really go the distance in making the holiday grind more bearable. If walking isn’t something you enjoy, why not try yoga, and let your breath carry you away from it all? Exercise doesn’t have to produce heavy breathing and sweat to count—so find something that gently allows your body to expend its extra energy, and go with it.
Prep your way to less stress
You’ve probably heard the saying, “Fail to plan? Plan to fail.” That’s a little harsh, but there’s no question that having a holiday-prep plan will help ensure the success of your season. Take a look at your seasonal to-do list and make notes about the things that can be taken care of in advance. Can you bake and freeze some dinner or dessert items now? How about sending out the invitations early, with your requests of what others should bring for the meal included? Some things don’t need to wait to be done until the week before the big day. Take advantage of the time you have, and take action now.
Maintain realistic expectations of yourself and others
Family relationships are complicated. Add in holiday pressures and heightened expectations for a perfect holiday, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Instead of expecting a perfect holiday staged by Hallmark, keep your vision of the day realistic. That one relative who really knows how to push your buttons will not magically become a joy to be around just because it’s a special day. Accept the likely reality for what it is, and make the best of it. Dr. Greenberg cautions that you should rein in your expectations—especially around the holidays. “It is crucial to keep expectations at a reasonable level. If we set the bar too high and expect family get-togethers or other celebrations to be perfect, then we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.” Who needs the extra stress of having a perfect day?
Keep healthy boundaries in place
Some of your family or friends may see the holidays as an excuse for excess, indulgence, or rude behavior. Though more family time might lead you to have an extra glass of wine, Dr. Greenberg says this isn’t the best option to soothe frazzled nerves. She warns, “Keep the drinking of alcohol to a minimum. Too much alcohol leads to saying the wrong thing, behaving in a clumsy manner, and unintentionally bruising the feelings of others. It also leads to embarrassing yourself and your family.” Everyone wants an enjoyable day, but it shouldn’t cost you your sanity or healthy limitations.
Make a date with yourself
“The holidays can be a chaotic time with friends and family and it’s OK to schedule some alone time,” says Prakash Masand MD, a psychiatrist from Duke University and founder of the Centers of Psychiatric Excellence. “Ask your spouse to watch the kids for an hour and go to the spa, or go hit a bucket of golf balls. Seeking some solitude is both healthy and necessary to reduce stress.”
Hit “pause” on family arguments
Old tensions, political differences, blended families with ex-spouses and new loves—for a lot of people, getting together with extended family to celebrate holidays is a mixture of good and bad. If tensions and disagreements arise, consider pressing pause, at least for now. “Holidays are not the time to resolve family conflicts,” says Dr. Masand. “Many individuals use the family holidays to try to resolve longstanding conflicts with family members often with disastrous consequences, particularly when alcohol is involved. Leave addressing those issues to a later time in a one-to-one conversation.”
Do your shopping in short bursts
In an interesting 2016 study, researchers strapped emotion-tracking devices to 100 people and sent them holiday shopping for an hour. The findings? People’s heart rates increased by an average of 33 percent while shopping, about the same increase seen in someone who’s running a marathon. A majority became fatigued after just half an hour. “There’s so much to do: buying presents, cooking, decorating and more. Saving it all for the last minute will raise your stress,” says Dr. Masand. “Start a few weeks ahead of time and do a little at a time.”
The number-one stressor during the holidays is time, a survey by the American Psychological Association found. A full two-thirds of people surveyed often or sometimes feel worried about having time to fit everything in, including family visits, cooking, shopping, decorating, and working. If you find yourself feeling stretched thin every holiday season, why not plan to do a little bit less this year? Jot down a quick list of all the parties, activities, and traditions you “need” to fit in and then prioritize. The ones that end up near the bottom? They’re optional.
Stick to a budget
Money is the second-biggest source of holiday stress (“time” is number one), according to the American Psychological Association. That’s why Dr. Masand suggests making a holiday budget and sticking to it. “Every parent wants to buy that perfect holiday gift for their child, but big-ticket items can take a toll on your wallet and your stress level,” he says. If you exchange gifts with extended friends and family, “consider a grab bag gift exchange where each person buys only one gift to alleviate the stress of having to get something for everyone.” Of course, gifts aren’t the only expenses of the season—there’s also food. “Let others help,” says Dr. Masand. “Don’t feel like you have to be the hero of the holiday season. Ask each person to bring a dish to dinner, make decorating a family activity where the kids help out.”
Go store-bought instead of homemade
Do you always bring the pie for the holiday meal, always homemade? If this year has you feeling overwhelmed or overworked, consider giving yourself the gift of time and buy one instead. Store-bought or cafe-bought desserts can be just as enjoyable, especially if you’re not stressed out and exhausted when you eat them! Try this top-pick frozen apple pie or check out this Chicago Tribune review of sweet potato, pecan, and apple pies from grocery stores like Walmart, Jewel, and Target.
Expect some bad along with the good
In a recent survey, 41 percent of Americans admitted to working too hard to have a “perfect” holiday season. “Expect things to go wrong,” says Dr. Masand. “Your son may hate his Christmas gift. Your daughter might get sick. You may overcook the ham. The point is things will go wrong. Appreciate the season for the time spent with loved ones and create new memories, and don’t sweat the small stuff.”
Draw firm boundaries between work and family
Many people have to work regular schedules in the days leading up to the holidays—those in the travel industry, retail, hospitality, and food services may have to work even more than usual. Other than requesting time off as far in advance as possible, those work schedules can’t necessarily be controlled. What can be are your boundaries when you’re not at work. Thirty-four percent of people in an American Psychological Association survey say they experience significant stress worrying that work obligations will impede on their holiday celebrations. So when you’re off the clock, stay there. Make it clear that you can’t respond to texts or emails on your days off, and don’t let yourself feel pressured into filling in for co-workers who ask to swap shifts.
Look out for the holiday blues
Those of us who have lost loved ones or are facing other difficult life situations may feel especially sad during this time of year when everyone is supposed to be jolly. Don’t ignore these feelings of grief or sadness, say the mental health experts at the Mayo Clinic. Not only is it OK to express these feelings during this time of “cheer,” it’s healthier to do that than to ignore or suppress them. Learn more about what to look out for when holiday blues go too far.
Remember that ultimately, a holiday is just a day
“The holidays are filled with both joy and stress,” says Ellen Braaten, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital. If you find yourself feeling extremely overwhelmed by emotions, pressures, or obligations this year, try to shift your perspective by deciding what’s most important and what you want the holidays to mean to you. “The holidays are just another time of year, certainly something to mark, but not the end-all, be-all,” she says.
Focus on the good
Yes, the holidays can be stressful and difficult. But they’re also full of joy for many of us. The American Psychological Association found that 78 percent of people report feeling happy, 75 percent feel love, and 60 percent report being in high spirits this time of year. So don’t lose sight of what you enjoy most about this time of year, whether it’s the twinkling lights, music, food, or fellowship.
When it comes to getting healthy, it’s not all about working up a sweat. In fact, there are tons of practical and beneficial habits you can work into your day-to-day that have nothing to do with hitting the gym or making rounds on the ClassPass circuit.
Some of these lifestyle adjustments involve eating more mindfully, which includes techniques like slowing down as you eat and paying attention to signals that let you know when you’re full. But getting enough sleep, reducing stress and cutting back on alcohol are all important too.
“Our environment, our habits and our mindset are almost just as important as what it is we are putting in our mouths. And we have to realize that,” said Lisa Young, a registered dietitian and adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University.
Here are some tips for boosting your health that have nothing to do with burning calories, but are almost guaranteed to leave you feeling better:
1. Slow down at meal time.
These days, everything we do ― eating included ― tends to happen at hyper speed. And it’s simply not good for your health. Nutritionists advise slowing down and chewing each bite of food somewhere between 20 and 30 times, which makes it easier to digest and absorb. In fact, the more you break down the food in your mouth, the more you’re going to absorb in the intestine, said Kelly Johnston, a registered dietitian and health coach at Parsley Health.
For the sake of digestion, try setting aside a bit more time so you can eat your meals in a less hasty way, even if it’s not 20 to 30 chews per bite of food.
“I always say the first line of digestion is your mouth, and chewing is such an important part of that,” Johnston said. “The less work you do in your mouth, the more work you have to do in your stomach and intestine, which can cause bloating downstream, constipation and just more work for the intestine.”
Eating at a slower pace also gives you more time to register fullness, which can lower your chances of overeating.
“Challenge yourself to take at least 15 to 20 minutes to finish a meal, because that is how long it takes for your gut to tell your brain it’s full,” said Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, a registered dietitian in New York City.
2. Limit your distractions while eating.
Despite the fact that more than half of Americans eat lunch at their desks each day, nutritionists say this isn’t the best choice for your health. For one, the body has trouble prioritizing digestion when you’re stressed.
“The uptick of the stress hormone cortisol may cause nutrients to become poorly digested and disrupt the normal digestion process,” Beckerman said.
We get it though: Sometimes you have no option other than to work through lunch. In these situations, Young suggested planning exactly what you’re going to eat. This can help you avoid overeating, which seems to happen way too easily when you’re focused on your screen rather than the food you’re putting in your mouth.
“The problem when you eat mindlessly is that you don’t even realize that you’ve eaten,” Young said.
3. Eat whole rather than processed foods.
Ultra-processed foods are often high in sodium and added sugars and come with long lists of ingredients, many of which do little in terms of benefiting your overall health. Making a real effort to swap processed for whole foods is a great way to get healthier. Consider focusing on foods that exist in nature like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy fats and high-quality proteins like beans, fish and meat.
“Processed foods have fillers, stabilizers and thickeners that can disrupt your body’s ability to soak in essential vitamins and nutrients from real foods,” Beckerman said. “You’ll be able to deliver and maximize the purest forms of nutrients to your body when you can eat whole foods.”
4. Get enough sleep.
When you’re trying to squeeze in time for everything possible in life ― work, social commitments, family, exercise, cooking healthy meals and more ― maintaining a healthy sleep schedule is often pushed aside. But getting enough sleep probably deserves a higher spot on your list of priorities. After all, this is the time of day where your body relaxes and repairs.
The exact amount of sleep varies from person to person, but somewhere around seven to eight hours a night is a good target, Johnston said. You surely know this from experience, but when you don’t get enough sleep, your body struggles the next day.
“Research shows that if you don’t get enough sleep, you automatically usually have an elevated blood sugar the following day because you haven’t metabolized well,” Johnston said.
Meanwhile, sleep deprivation disrupts the balance of the body’s hunger and satiety hormones, which can lead you toward that bottomless-pit feeling where you eat and eat but don’t feel full, Beckerman explained. Not getting enough sleep also leads to low levels of leptin, a hormone that helps regulate the body’s energy balance by inhibiting hunger. The result? Increased cravings of sugary and sweet foods, Beckerman said.
5. Find a way to let go of stress.
Some stress is good for you, especially the type that appears when you’re excited. But chronic stress, the kind that feels inescapable, can have a ton of negative effects on the body, from depression and anxiety to gastrointestinal problems and cardiovascular disease. For the sake of your health, it’s important to find a stress-relieving habit you can turn to regularly to balance the daily demands that drain you.
For some, this release can have to do with exercise, like going for a walk or going to a yoga class. For others, it might mean journaling, meditating or talking to a close friend. Really, the method is up to you as long as you take some time to yourself to let some of the stress fade away.
“Just recharging your battery is so important,” Johnston said.
6. Cut back on alcohol.
Besides contributing to those dreaded hangovers, drinking more than the recommended amount (up to one drink a day for women and two for men) can increase your risk of cancer and high blood pressure, as well as contribute to poor sleep, overeating, impaired cognitive function even after the alcohol leaves your system and earlier signs of aging, like wrinkles and broken blood vessels.
Many types of alcohol are also super sugary, which can lead to weight gain and problems with blood sugar levels. Additionally, alcohol and sugar can both negatively impact “the health of our gut and our microbiome,” Johnston said.
Alcohol also impairs the efficacy of the hormone leptin, which as mentioned earlier, plays a role in keeping you full.
“This imbalance influences our powerful brains towards convincing us that we want more carbohydrate heavy and greasy meals,” Beckerman said. So, while there’s usually nothing wrong with a drink here and there, it’s best to keep it to a minimum.
Health often seems like a numbers game. What’s your blood-sugar level? How many calories are you eating? And are you getting the right percentage of macros (or macronutrients)? The problem is that sometimes we track, count and obsess over numbers that don’t matter very much for our overall health. Or worse, we ignore numbers that do matter.
I was curious about which numbers my fellow dietitians consider the most important. I sought feedback from 20 experts who work in either hospitals or private practice. Here are the data that have the most clinical importance, and the ones they tell their patients to ignore.
The numbers that matter most:
Half your plate. Instead of counting every calorie, dietitians recommend that clients simplify food decisions by using a plate model, where you choose the right proportions of each food. That means filling half your plate with vegetables and some fruit; one quarter with protein-rich foods such as fish, poultry or beans; and the final quarter with whole grains such as quinoa or brown rice. The Healthy Eating Plate from Harvard University is a great example of a plate model.
25 to 35 grams. That’s how much fibre a day we need for optimal health, but most Americans get just 16 grams per day. Getting enough fibre helps lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels, prevents certain cancers, eases constipation and keeps you feeling full for longer, which is helpful for weight management. Get more fibre from vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains (or just follow the healthy-plate model, mentioned above).
7 to 8 hours. Are you getting that much sleep every night? Lack of sleep has short-term consequences, such as poor judgment, increased risk of accidents, bad moods and less ability to retain information. Poor sleep over the long term has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. So, turn off the TV, power down your devices and get the rest your body needs.
150 minutes. That’s the recommendation for how much physical activity (equivalent to 2.5 hours) you should get each week, preferably spread through the week in increments of at least 10 minutes. This level of activity helps combat heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, dementia and cancer.
100 mg/dl. Your doctor can test your fasting plasma glucose level to check for Type 2 diabetes (a normal reading is less than 100 mg/dl). Often called a “lifestyle” disease, Type 2 diabetes is largely preventable by eating well and getting enough exercise. If you have diabetes, lifestyle changes can actually help you reverse the diagnosis — but first you need to know your number. A diagnosis of prediabetes is 100 to 125 mg/dl., and a diagnosis of diabetes is 126 mg/dl. or higher.
120/80 mmHg. High blood pressure is known as the silent killer because it often has no obvious symptoms. Left untreated, high blood pressure is a risk factor for having a heart attack or a stroke. That’s why you need to get your blood pressure checked and know whether you are at risk. Normal blood pressure is 120/80 mmHg (millimetres of mercury) or less. Elevated blood pressure is 121 to 129 over 80. High blood pressure is 130 to 139 over 80 to 89.
The numbers that don’t matter very much:
Size 8. Too many people have a diet goal to be a specific size, but the numbers on clothes are inconsistent and arbitrary. A size 4 at one store may fit like a size 8 at a different store, which makes shopping frustrating — and makes your pant or shirt size a very poor measure of your health. If you don’t like the number on your pants, cut the label out. Focus on how you feel, not the number on the clothing tag.
50 years old. Or 86. Or 31, 75 or 27. Age is just a number. You are never too young to need to take care of yourself, or too old to start an exercise program or change what you eat. A healthy lifestyle is important at every age.
1,800 calories. Or whatever number you choose. You don’t need to count every calorie you eat — it’s tedious, often flawed, and it doesn’t help you choose nutrient-dense foods. If you had the choice between 100 calories of broccoli or fries, you’d probably choose the fries, right? But that wouldn’t provide much nourishment and oversimplifies eating into one silly number. If you are a lifelong calorie counter, there’s no need to give it up, but remember that it’s not the most vital number for your overall health.
40-30-30. Or any other ratio of macronutrients, the umbrella term for carbs, protein and fat. Keeping track of macros is a popular diet, and if it works for you, fantastic! But some dietitians warn that it’s difficult to know the precise macro content of every food you eat, which leads to obsessive use of food diaries and macro-counting apps. This promotes a dieting mentality, rather the concept of enjoying food from a balanced plate. There’s nothing magical about counting macros. It’s just a diet.
Below 25. The body mass index (BMI) is a clinical tool that groups people in categories of normal weight, overweight or obese depending on their height and weight. But BMI doesn’t take age, gender or bone structure into account, and athletes are often classified as overweight because BMI doesn’t distinguish between muscle and fat! So, don’t rely on this number as your primary measure of health.