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Dr. Herbert Benson of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital offers suggestions for avoiding holiday stress

It's the most wonderful time of the year

Now, try to relax!

17/Dec/2009

 

Herbert Benson, MD

The Holiday Season - when Thanksgiving becomes Black Friday it's time for carols and decorations, presents and parties.  For many people, it also means piling more to-dos into already hectic schedules.

"Stress results from any situation that requires you to change your behavior," says Herbert Benson, MD, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. "Many of us have very busy lives and adding the holidays, with its many obligations, can be very demanding."

To enjoy the festivities and preserve your health and sanity, Dr. Benson suggests making relaxation a part of your routine. Here he provides some tips that will return the "happy" to your "holidays."

The Relaxation Response

Stress is not only unpleasant; it can also impact your physical health.  Research suggests that stress can cause or worsen a myriad of common ailments, including hypertension, depression, anxiety, insomnia, irritable bowel and headaches. Stress can also make you more prone to infections like the cold and flu.

"In fact, more than 60 percent of visits to healthcare professionals are in some way related to stress," says Dr. Benson.

Research conducted by the Benson-Henry Institute has found that there is a physical response that is the opposite of the reaction that stress elicits in your body. Dr. Benson calls this the Relaxation Response.

"When we bring forth the Relaxation Response, it doesn't change the stress itself, but protects your body against the harmful affects of stress and in doing so you feel better and less anxious, depressed or angry," says Dr. Benson.

Dr. Benson, who pioneered research in the Relaxation Response and has written several books on the subject, suggests taking at least 10 minutes a day to focus on relaxation. He steps for achieving the benefits of the Relaxation Response are:

1.    Sit quietly in a comfortable position and close your eyes
2.    Relax all of your muscles, working up from the feet to the muscles in the face
3.    Breathe easily and naturally. As you exhale repeat a chosen word, phrase or prayer.
4.    Ignore distracting thoughts
5.    Continue for 10-20 minutes. Do not set an alarm to stop. When finished, sit quietly for another few minutes.

"Finding a time to dedicate to relaxation is important," says Dr. Benson. "You have to put in time to get the benefits, including lower blood pressure and heart rate."

Returning Joy to the Holidays

In addition to scheduled relaxation, which can be beneficial year round, Patricia Arcari, RN, PhD, director of the Benson-Henry Institute’s Mind Body Program for Mother, says there are many ways to trim the excess stress from the holidays.

  • Spend some time discussing what is important and meaningful to your family. Try to balance your time and finances accordingly.
  • Prioritize the demands on your schedule. Choosing a handful of activities allows you to enjoy each one more fully
  • Be mindful of the moment. Focus on enjoying the activity at hand instead of worrying about what’s coming next
  • If you feel stress rising, take deep breathes, holding each one, and count back from five. These mini-relaxation moments can help keep you calm on hectic days.

Arcari suggests making a timeline for all the things you want to accomplish and approach each with the intention to really enjoy it.

"The items on the timeline include activities that you consider to be part of a joyful holiday," says Arcari. "Each moment of each activity has the potential to bring joy, but you need to be in the moment and experience it fully instead of worrying about the next obligation."

More tips on eliciting the Relaxation Response

Dr. Benson talks with ABC News’s Dr. Timothy Johnson about "easy ways to take the edge off."

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