Holiday stress busters
Photo Illustration: Caroline Shepard

It's as predictable as plastic reindeer, spinning dreidels, family visits, and overspending on gifts: holiday anxiety. And we shouldn't take it lightly. According to a paper published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the effects of psychological stress can weaken immune function and trigger inflammation, raising the risk of autoimmune disease, coronary artery disease, and depression.

We asked three stress experts what they've learned from their research and how they apply these skills to their own periods of seasonal pressure.
David Burns, MD
Photo: Courtesy Broadway Books 
A cognitive behavioral therapist and author of the best-selling books Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy and When Panic Attacks, is an adjunct clinical professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Burns finds he can defuse stressful family situations by communicating more effectively. "Most people do surprisingly poorly when dealing with a relative who is hurting, depressed, or anxious—we get defensive and try to solve the problem rather than finding the truth in what the person is saying," says Burns. "I like to use what I call the five secrets of effective communication, which are made up of three listening skills and two self-expression skills."

First, practice listening (Burns calls it the disarming technique): "Find some truth in what the other person is saying, even if it seems unreasonable or unfair. Then empathize by putting yourself in her [or his] shoes and see the world from her perspective." Part of being empathetic is to act as a mirror, paraphrasing her words and acknowledging how she's probably feeling.

"Third, ask gentle, probing questions to learn more about what the other person is thinking and feeling. Those are the three listening skills."

Now you're ready to begin communicating back. The fourth step is to use "I feel" statements, such as "I feel upset," rather than "You" statements, such as "You're wrong!" Stroking statements come last. "Stroking means treating the other person with respect even if you're angry and they're angry. Always do it in a way that the other person won't feel put down or lose face."

Alice Domar, PhD
Photo: Courtesy Domar Center for Mind/Body Health 
Executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health. A pioneer in the application of mind/body medicine to women's health issues, she's an assistant clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School.
"Often I seem to worry about things that are very unlikely to happen," says Domar. "I put a loved one on the plane and think, 'Is it going to get hijacked? Will it crash?' And I go down the list of all the awful things that could happen. So I use a technique called 'thought stopping': I recognize this is totally unrealistic and don't allow my brain to go down that road." When Domar is feeling tense, she gives the people around her a heads-up about her vulnerabilities; she lets them know ahead of time that her frustrations are not aimed at them. "The fact is, if you get angry with someone close to you, they're likely to assume it's their fault or feel the need to defend themselves," she says. And in situations where she has been overwhelmed—such as when she learned that her mother had terminal cancer—the first thing she does is to think about what she needs in the moment. "Then I write down all the resources and coping skills I have," she says. "And I remind myself of who I can count on during a crisis."

Elizabeth H. Blackburn, PhD
Photo: Micheline Pelletier 2007 
Professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco; in 2007 was named by Time magazine one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Blackburn's studies suggest that psychological stress is associated with, and possibly speeds up, cellular aging.
 "My research shows how chronic stress directly interferes with the ability of our cells to renew tissues in the body [which is linked to accelerated aging]. It made me realize I'd better take stress seriously," says Blackburn. "So I learned to meditate. I don't have to do this for hours: If I can get myself into a calm, relaxing mode for just a few minutes, it helps."

The most damaging form of stress comes from situations in which you feel powerless, Blackburn says, such as caring for a chronically ill child or aging parent. But for anyone stuck in a difficult situation, Blackburn believes in focusing instead on sources of stress that are controllable: "Put a financial plan in place, for example," she advises. In tense times, Blackburn tries to find the things she can change and manages those. "Simply exercising regularly pays back dividends because when you feel healthy," she says, "you feel more in control."


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