It’s the Most Wonderfully Stressful Time of the Year!

Some of you know I used to be a teacher.  I taught Basic English at a local community college and every November and December, it was always the same: prepping for finals, grading the term papers, meeting with panicking students and more grading, grading, grading, so we can turn in our final grades to Admin and  get all of it done before the third week in December! (As a grad student, one of my professors used to post signs on his closed office door; one said “No Whining,” and the other said “Go Away.” The grad students got it; the undergrads didn’t.)  Each December, I would foolishly hope this would be the year I could actually enjoy the season and then it finally dawned on me that every December was going to be the same.  I eventually learned to deal with it better but it wasn’t until I left academia that my holiday seasons settled down.  A little.

As we all know, this is the season of giving, the season of joy, the season of STRESS! It’s a long list of things that we “need” to do in order to “celebrate” the season.  Have we hung lights? Our wreath? Are our decorations up? Have we sent cards? Have we bought cards?  What about the stamps for those cards?  What about the gifts for the family? And do we even have a tree to put them under? What about the dinner? Just thinking about it all can get our stress levels rising and if you have small kids, it goes up even more (thank you, Santa!) This is just the “regular” stress- now add in your new healthy eating and fitness plan! Aack! Yeah- on top of all this, you are supposed to make time for exercise, meal planning and healthy eating! No wonder so many of us just put our fitness goals on hold until the New Year. Trying to eat healthy on top of Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas cookies, holiday parties and New Year’s celebrations is a lot.  For the rest of the year, homes and offices are going to be swimming in cookies, cakes, breads, candies, alcohol and just treats of all shapes and sizes!  The one good thing about most of the shopping at actual stores (and not online) is that we’ll be out there moving around, running from one place to another and probably hiking in from the hinterlands of the various parking lots! The good thing about the online shopping is that it at least comes to you and takes a little less actual time (though more lead time thanks to delivery) so you can cram some more things to do into your already overstuffed list!

So, your mission -should you decide to accept it- is to keep working on your fitness goals, get all your holiday tasks accomplished and NOT turn into Scrooge in the process! Truth be told, last year, my fitness goals pretty much went out the window due to too many holiday cookies and every other treat under the tree (though I missed the fruitcake I managed to get this year!)  This year, I am a little more prepared and little more accustomed to my regular healthy eating plan.  Like everyone else, I’m aiming for my fitness goals and aiming at staying merry.  We shall see how close I come to hitting the mark!

The first step I think is just being prepared.  Knowing you are going to a holiday party or dinner is half the battle.  You can choose to eat something healthy and filling before you go, so there is just less room for the less healthy options and hopefully less temptation to indulge.  You can also do the opposite and NOT eat, so you can choose some of the healthier choices that will hopefully be available (even if you have to bring them yourself). That way you can eat at the party/ dinner without overeating. If you go to a lot of parties, you can choose to eat a little lighter just in general to balance out the “party days” when there’s a higher chance you’ll overindulge.

Another important step is saying no to the temptations. Let’s face it: the supermarkets are going to be chock-full of iced holiday sugar cookies, and when you’ve had one, you’ve had them all!  It’s not like it’s Aunt Minnie’s handmade Christmas fudge or Grandma’s handmade banana cream pie. Something made special is more likely to be worth it, even if it’s not about the taste.  (I’d give anything to have my grandma’s banana cream pie again!) You can go to the parties and politely say no to the treats they push at you out of holiday cheer and you don’t have to tell them that you’re eating healthy or trying to lose weight.  A friend of mine gets a cookie (or piece of cake), takes a bit or two and carries it around so when they ask her if she wants something, she can say she’s still working on the last one! Saying no is a little bit easier when you already know the “treats” aren’t really going to be worth it, and this is where being on the Good Boys and Girls list can really pay off for you! This comes with changing your palate, which takes some time.  When you’ve gotten away from eating cookies, candy, and sweets in general, they taste different when you eat them again.  This goes for any foods, really.  Once you break the craving for them by not eating them for a prolonged period of time, they lose their hold on you.  When you do eat them again, they don’t taste quite as yummy, so there is less chance of them becoming “crave-worthy” again.  This happened to me just this past Halloween: I had a Payday bar, which had always been one of my favorites, and I had not had one for several months. It was my Halloween “treat” but, while it didn’t taste bad, it didn’t taste spectacular either.  It really tasted very sweet and sugary, and while I didn’t hate it, I know I won’t be craving another one any time soon! So, if you’ve not had a lot of cookies lately, should you decide to indulge in one of the festive iced sugar cookies or whatever cookies/ treats you choose, I think you may be a little surprised to find it’s worth it to say no to them.  They won’t taste as delicious as they look and when you realize each cookie you eat is taking you backwards from your goals, it really makes it easy to say no to sugary Christmas cookies and overly sweet holiday cakes.

Most of us who are working on health and fitness goals tend to focus on eating and not eating, but we tend to overlook the stress that just comes with the holidays.  Stress and sleeplessness are huge factors in weight loss, but because they don’t go in our mouths (emotional eating aside), we sweep them to the side: “I can’t deal with that now!” and we do so at our peril.  Stress and sleeplessness increase the cortisol levels in our body and interfere with our body’s ability to burn fat and recover.  That means even if we are eating relatively well, we may not lose weight or recover as well from our workouts because we aren’t sleeping and relaxing.  Who has time for that?!  That’s the same excuse so many of us use when we put off exercising: we don’t have time.  I’m going to be a little harsh here: when people say they don’t have time to exercise it’s because they don’t make time for exercise.  We make time for things that are important to us and for some people, clearly exercise isn’t important.  I know there are people whose days are literally jam-packed from sunrise well past sunset with things that are nonnegotiable, and those are not the people I’m talking about.  But if you have time to watch your favorite tv shows or play your favorite games or scroll through Facebook, you have the time: you are just choosing Facebook, The Walking Dead or Assassin’s Creed over exercise.  It’s the same for relaxing and sleeping.  I learned the hard way (via the job from hell) about choosing what’s important to me, so I make time for workouts, shopping for healthy foods, getting to bed on time and play time with my pets.  That might not seem like really important stuff, but each of those plays an important part in my weight loss and health, both mental and physical.  Obviously, eating healthy and exercise are good for my body but so are getting enough sleep and playing with my pets. When I work out, eat well, and am well rested, I am just a happier healthier person overall.  It makes it easier for me to deal with problems that come up and it actually helps me handle stress better, because I am not already chronically stressed.  We’ve all had days when everything just seems to go wrong and we just want to get home and sit down but when we walk in the front door we find the dog has dumped over the trash can and dragged it all over the house, and we just lose it!  We started yelling at the dog, at the kids/ family who didn’t take the trash out and we stomp all over the house, shouting.  It’s the sour cherry on top of the stress sundae.  Welcome to the holiday season!

No one can stop bad days from happening, but if you make it a practice to find time to rest and relax (de-stressing), they are easier to handle.  Even if you have a lot of things on your plate, you handle them better when you aren’t already frazzled.  I’m not talking about procrastination; I’m talking about stress management.  Going to bed on time or at reasonable hour to get an adequate number of hours of sleep helps your body recover.  It means you don’t get up already tired and cranky.  Spending time doing something you enjoy gives your brain a break and lessens the cortisol and other stress hormones in your bloodstream, in addition to helping your mood.  (This is why I spend time with my pets!)  It doesn’t have to be something you add to your schedule; it can be simply adjusting something in your schedule.  For example, one of my favorite tv shows is NCIS, so when that show is on, it’s my time.  If you call or text me during the show, I will probably ignore it until -maybe- a commercial break.  I usually have my dog or cat(s) on my lap and I’m not scrolling through MFP or anything else I “need” to catch up on.  I’m enjoying my tv show and my pets.  I block out time for playing with pets, usually on the weekends or evenings and pretty much ignore the phone, texts and emails.  This is time for me and the furry kids.  It can be something as simple as taking off the Bluetooth on the drive to work and putting on your favorite playlist instead.  It can be taking your time at the grocery store or wandering through a bookstore (or any other store) while you are “getting your errands done”  and if you happen to get a few Christmas presents or other errands accomplished, kudos to you!  Remember how Scrooge turned into Scrooge: he was focused on getting ahead and missed what really matters in life, or rather who. The holidays are about sharing time with those who matter most to us; the cookies, the treats, the parties, the gifts- they’re all fun and nice to have, but the point of the party isn’t the cookies any more than the point of the gifts is the growing balance on your rewards card.  It’s the people you share them with, and no one wants to share time with grumpy old Ebeneezer.  Remember that when you’re slogging through the parking lots and looking at one more tray of iced reindeer sugar cookies: it’s about the people you love and the ones who love you.  Be good to them and be good to you, because you are important to them too!


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