The holiday season is notorious for attending many parties, family gatherings, office functions, charity events, travel and gift shopping. As your holiday schedule fills up with these events it can cause some feelings of anxiety and depression. “38% of Americans say their stress levels soar during the holidays”. Not only is stress high during this time period, but the aftershock of weight gain and extra bills to pay could ruin everything.
Diabetes and the Holidays
Diabetes can make life more challenging on a regular day, and even more, during and after the holidays. Feelings of anxiety can lead to depression which often causes increased over-eating and sedentary behavior. Depression can come from feeling neglected and alone, not being part of the right plans, pressure to be “happy” just because and observing everyone else being engaged and involved. Many of you deal with this by letting the dreaded cycle begin – binge eating, lack of sleep, not testing blood sugars, skipping exercise and overall lack of self-control. During this season we also experience the “sugar rush” of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. “75 % of Americans continue to eat simple sugars especially this season: pies, cakes, puddings, Christmas cookies, drinking eggnog, liquor punch and so much more.
Processed foods and simple sugars can lead to:
- huge swings in blood sugars
- fogginess and forgetfulness
- sadness and high levels of insulin being poured into your blood stream to counteract the influx of dietary sugar
Too much sugar causes chemical imbalances in the brain, especially in women, leading to higher depression rates. This holiday season do not get caught in the typical seasonal frenzy.
Learn ways to easily cope, relieve tension, anxiety and depression.
First, what causes your anxiety and depression?
Each person has different reasons for stress, anxiety and depression. First, you need to identify what is causing yours. Is it:
- Lack of time?
- Financial obligations and worries?
- Being far away from family and friends?
- Having no family or friends around?
- Being in charge of the family gatherings?
- Present pressure – finding that PERFECT gift?
- Traveling expense, plane rides, getting sick by being exposed to so many people?
- Taking time off from work and your work tasks pile up?
- Forcing yourself to be happy, upbeat and social?
Then learn what brings you pleasure, joy and what really matters to you. Learn to include “YOU” on the pleasing list.
What happens specifically with diabetes?
With stress, anxiety and depression, comes spikes in blood sugars due to excess cortisol, a stress hormone. A good way to see how stress and anxiety affect blood sugars is to test blood sugars before the stressor, during the stressor and 3 hours after it ends. The stressor can be anything that aggravates you. Document what you see and look for blood sugar patterns. Weight gain from stress and depression will mess with blood sugars. Skipping meals due to stress can lower blood sugars to dangerous levels especially when taking certain diabetes medications such as insulin.
What can help you with holiday anxiety and depression?
Aromatherapy has been around for thousands of years and uses natural plants and extracts to promote your health and well-being. Essential oils are concentrated versions of certain compounds in plants. Physicians in France saw potential for treating disease with essential oils in the early 19th century. They looked at stress, agitation, frustration and depression. Research from 2013 states, “lavender essential oil may help relieve diabetes symptoms”.
Lavender has always been considered a remedy to help reduce feelings of anxiety. Finally, there is some biology behind this theory. Researchers in Japan found that “the vaporized lavender compound, linalool, triggers a relaxing effect by directly stimulating olfactory sensory neurons”. Endorphins are released, breathing is slowed as well as heart rate. Essential oils affect both the body and mind. This study was published online in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. Lavender can be found in essential oils, creams, lotions, body butters, candles, bath salts and inhalers.
You can also purchase a diffuser and add a few drops to water to diffuse the fragrance directly into the air. Always use a carrier oil such as almond or coconut, when placing essential oils directly on the skin. Other essential oils commonly used with diabetes are: dill, coriander, lemon balm, cinnamon, rose jasmine and geranium. Since they are not regulated by the FDA, you should only purchase essential oils from a reputable company. Look for 100% essential lavender products without any synthetic or artificial fillers. Be careful if you suffer from asthma or allergies.
It is already common knowledge that aerobic exercises such as: walking, jogging, bicycling, swimming, dancing, among other forms, can help lower anxiety levels and alleviate a depressed mood. It will also increase your energy levels. Join in on a holiday 5K walk or run. Play catch outside with the kids. Try ice skating or snowshoeing. All you really need is a brisk walk. Make it fun and enjoyable. Workout in a group or class for social benefits. “Green space” or being outdoors does an even better job of lowering stress and anxiety. Find a “new to you” activity like hiking or cross-country skiing. Make a commitment to staying active for all the right reasons. Even clean off that stationary bike or treadmill and actually use it. Exercise can take on many different forms. Find one that motivates you and one that you can stick with.
How does exercise reduce anxiety?
- Boosts your mood by diverting your brain
- Decreases muscle tension
- Promotes release of endorphins, the “feel good hormone”
- Creates better and more restful sleep
- Makes serotonin and GABA available “happy” brain chemicals
- Elevates heart rates which changes brain chemicals
- Activates frontal brain activity
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
High intensity interval training is even more effective, and uses “short bursts of strenuous activity to ramp up your heart rate and boost fitness more quickly”. It alternates periods of real effort and periods of lower activity. HIIT does not have to be strenuous or scary and it is safe for most people. Always check with your health care provider before you start a new fitness program.
The “high intensity” is based on your current exercise level. If you are just beginning, then high intensity means short bursts of speed walking, not climbing mountains. If you are already partaking in a 30-minute workout routine (suggested for people with diabetes) then alternate between high and low intensity training. Speed up for 30 seconds then slow down for 60 seconds and keep progressing. Extend the high intensity for up to 3-5 minutes very gradually, with backing down periods of up to 60 seconds.
Besides achieving a higher fitness level, it is fun to challenge yourself and can prevent boredom. You will also need a shorter time period to reach a higher fitness level. More free time reduces stress. Watch out for injuries which can really slow you down. Report any new aches and pains to your physician.
What can HIIT do for you?
- Improve blood sugar control
- Decrease blood pressure
- Maintain muscle mass
- Target abdominal fat
- Enhance a stagnant workout routine
Phototherapy: Bright Light Therapy
Less daylight hours during the winter and holiday season can play havoc on certain people and cause, “the winter blues.” You can experience both physical and emotional changes including being irritated, tired, prone to overeating and gaining weight. Not only is it less daylight hours, but overcast and cloudy skies, rainy and snowy days, keeping you inside for longer periods of time. This can adversely affect your quality of life. The actual diagnosis is called seasonal affective disorder or SAD.
It is quite common and can create anxiety and depression. Long, dark, cold winters make daily coping more challenging and can have an impact on your circadian rhythm or sleep cycles. Bright light therapy has been shown to be, “a patient friendly, non-pharmacologic antidepressant”. “Light therapy has been clinically shown to work to alleviate depression symptoms in more than 60 studies in scientific publications”. It can help reset the sleep cycle and improve insulin sensitivity in those with diabetes.
How do you treat SAD?
Light therapy boxes can be used to treat SAD. Always check with your health care provider for an official SAD diagnosis. Also, have a discussion before choosing a certain light box, since some are used for skin ailments like acne and eczema with others being used for SAD. Remember to talk to your eye doctor prior to using a light box especially if you have a history of glaucoma, retinopathy from diabetes or cataracts.
What does a light box do?
- Always read the full instructions before using the light box
- Light boxes mimic outdoor light
- Make sure it emits as little UV light as possible (UV light boxes are for skin disorders)
- Use within the first hour upon awakening in the morning
- Usually used for 20-30 minutes but check for specifics
- Position it so the light hits your face
- Do not look directly at the light
- You can be reading, watching TV, using the computer or doing crafts while in the light
- Position the light box about 2 feet from your face
- Light boxes are not regulated by the FDA, do not require a prescription and are not covered by insurance
- Light boxes are still considered a medical device
You can take control of your feelings by staying positive and not criticizing yourself. We tend to be our own worst enemies. Look on the bright side of your daily events. Make things light when you can. Realize that this too will pass. Does anyone really care if the turkey is too dry or if you forgot the pecan pie? Don’t make too many demands on yourself. Eliminate what you can and learn to say, “No”. Do the things you want to do, not what someone else wants from you. Remain polite. Schedule downtime. Enjoy calm, self-moments. Keep your routine as consistent as possible. Simplify. Lower your own expectations. Make written lists and check things off as you complete them. Concern yourself with only the things you can change. Brush off rude comments made by others.
Talk to someone
If you can’t get through it alone then talking to a family member or friend may be all you need. If you still feel overwhelmed, you may need to find a counselor, social worker or psychologist. “Talk therapy” during times of personal crisis, anytime of the year, may really be helpful.
If you are lonely, look for free/low cost activities and events.
There are usually tons of free events and gatherings during the holiday season. This can be very energizing when you are feeling lonely and down.
- Look for wine tasting get-togethers at local and chain stores. Even if you do not drink alcohol you may find yourself with a new group.
- Attend tree lighting ceremonies which occur in almost every local community.
- Go to a movie matinee. The prices are cheaper, and the holiday season offers more new films than any other time of the year.
- Window shop. The stores are packed with decorations, window displays, free spritzes of perfume and food samples.
- Go caroling. Many local services organize small groups to sing in the neighborhood.
- Make your own greeting cards, holiday decorations and baked goods instead of buying gifts. Have a creative party.
- Volunteer. It helps take the focus off of you and place it on someone less fortunate.
- Contact old friends and colleagues. You may renew a great friendship.
- Assist others who need help wrapping gifts. Schools often have gift wrap stations set up in malls as fund raisers.
- Visit a local hospital and offer to read to patients.
- Have an open house for friends and neighbors. Serve Christmas cookies and coffee. Make homemade pigs in a blanket and serve with a low-calorie punch. It doesn’t have to cost a lot to entertain.
- Read a classic like Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, or one you have been putting off for years.
- Cook a meal for or with a neighbor and listen to Christmas music.
Eat Well, Sleep Well to Manage Anxiety and Stress
Neuroscientists at University of California Berkeley discovered that deep, restful sleep is a natural anti-anxiety/depression intervention. Slow wave sleep helps lower blood pressure and heart rate. Without restful sleep, the brain goes into overdrive leading to more anxiety and then depression. Good sleep patterns are part of a drug-free intervention to reduce anxiety. Sound nutrition is another way to feel better during the holidays.
- Sleep your regular hours as much as possible. Same bedtime and same time to wake up. Avoid eating heavy meals or drinking alcohol at least 3 hours before bedtime. Keep the room dark and a cool but a comfortable temperature. Avoid TV and blue light in the bedroom. Consider a weighted blanket.
- Check out some different herbs. Lemon balm, an herb, can be a mood elevator, memory booster and may help promote more restful sleep. Passionflower induces a calming effect, lowers anxiety and can result in sounder sleep. Chamomile tea has been around forever and can encourage restful sleep. Never take herbs without consulting your physician since they may interfere with diabetes and blood pressure medications.
- Eating on time and including lean protein, whole grains and some healthy fats can make you feel better both physically and mentally. Drink plenty of water and sugar-free drinks to stay hydrated. Fill half the plate with vegetables, either raw or cooked. Budget your sweets. Taste new things but watch portions.