Taking Flight From Holiday Stress

The refrain “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” forever associated with the song by Andy Williams, has become an enduring holiday standard. But a lot of folks in today’s world find their sense of wonder dampened, and the holiday season as a major stressor. Some even would be OK seeing the holidays canceled entirely.

So says an annual survey conducted by the health care marketplace Sesame, as recently reported by Newsweek. Researchers asked 500 people in the United States over the age of 18 about their mental health status during the holiday season and what causes them stress, anxiety and depression. What they found was that 26% of the participants wished for the holidays to be “completely canceled due to the stress that comes with them.” Last year, more than 50% of participants said they wanted no holiday celebrations.

Certainly, the news of the day doesn’t help a lot in cheering people up. Competing with news on holiday shopping and travel tips is news from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the nation is facing a “tripledemic,” with RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), the flu and COVID all hitting at the same time. According to NPR, hospitalizations from the flu are the highest they’ve been this time of year in a decade. Then comes a report from ABC News that measles, an incredibly contagious disease, is now an “imminent (world) threat.” It begins to feel overwhelming.

As for holiday travel, The New York Times’ Danielle Friedman warns that the effects of travel conditions requiring people to squeeze themselves into small spaces in airplanes or trains and crowded parties intrude on a person’s personal space. “(It) can make you feel emotionally small,” she writes.

If you are looking to shake off the feeling of constriction, Chicago-based dance therapist Erica Hornthal recommends that you try and “shake your hands, shake your head — kind of like an animal after it gets wet. You can (even) make a game out of it if you have kids.” Says Harvard Health Executive Editor Mathew Solan in a recent report: “Any kind of movement that gets the heart rate up, speeds up your breathing, and makes you sweat a little counts as aerobic exercise. The best exercise is the one you enjoy.”

“Historically, people are least physically active during the winter,” says the Times’ Friedman in an interview with Dr. Rebecca Brendel, president of the American Psychiatric Association and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard University Medical School. “Americans are five times more likely to say their stress level increases rather than decreases during the holidays.”

What can we do within our control to cope with it all? Well, as I suggested last week, maybe one option when we start to feel overwhelmed with stress is to walk it off. Not to think of it as cardio exercise that requires a bunch of time and following strict guidelines, but as manageable and even enjoyable movement. It is recommended you look for options that fit your interests, comfort level and ability.

And, if you still think that the idea that I posed last week of “walking it off” is for the birds, well, you may be on to something — and a great reason to go outdoors.

Birda, a popular birdwatching app, says birdwatching “has become one of the fast growing hobbies in North America.” It is now “a multi-million dollar industry.” Reports Time magazine, “Birdwatching — or even simply listening — can lead to an array of mental-health benefits in humans, including long-lasting stress relief.” Adds Joan Strassmann, author of the book “Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard,” “the mental-health benefits are profound.” Not surprisingly, research shows that birdwatching has spiked in popularity during the pandemic.

According to the Time magazine report: “A study published in October in Scientific Reports found that seeing or hearing birds improved people’s mental wellbeing for up to eight hours. Nearly 1,300 people used a smartphone app to log their mood several times a day, noting whether they could see or hear birds. People with depression, as well as those without a mental-health condition, experienced significant improvements in wellbeing when they had these encounters. The benefits weren’t explained by other environmental factors, like seeing trees, plants, or water, all of which the study controlled for.”

In other research supporting the notion that birds are good for the brain, a 2017 study published in BioScience “found that bird abundance in urban neighborhoods was associated with a lower prevalence of depression, anxiety, and stress,” writes Times reporter Angela Haupt.

“Many people think that birdwatching is a hobby for the middle-aged or retirees,” says Birda. But a “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey, however, shows that in the US this is not the case at all showing that over half of birders are under the age of 54 and (account for) about 17% of the population between the ages of 16 and 34.”

Haupt sees birds as charismatic creatures. “There’s also the fact that birds are, well, everywhere — beautiful, colorful missiles streaking through the sky,” he notes, and watching them can be an awe-inspiring experience. According to the New York Times report, people who experience an awe moment or two in the great outdoors report lower levels of daily stress.

Exercise, in whatever form you prefer, can be a key way to combat the stress of the holiday season, says Friedman. “Just about any movement can offset holiday overwhelm,” she adds.