Moving Beyond Holiday Stress with Healthy Social Connections

We see the negative effects of stress in almost EVERY patient who visits our office, especially during the holidays. Can you relate?

While stress itself can be a positive force that pushes us to evolve and grow, in excess or (as is often the case) not effectively managed, stress can quickly deteriorate health.

From family squabbles to financial strain, the rapidly approaching holiday season is a common stress trigger for many of our patients. Although most of us are well aware, here is a timely reminder of the top health problems either caused by or exacerbated by stress…

  • Heart disease. Sudden emotional stress can be a trigger for serious cardiac problems, including heart attacks. People who have chronic heart problems need to avoid acute stress—and learn how to successfully manage life’s unavoidable stresses—as much as they can.
  • Asthma. Many studies have shown that stress can worsen asthma.
  • Obesity. Excess fat in the belly seems to pose greater health risks than fat on the legs or hips—and unfortunately, that’s just where people with high stress seem to store it.
  • Diabetes. Stress can worsen diabetes in two ways. First, it increases the likelihood of bad behaviors, such as unhealthy eating and excessive drinking. Second, stress seems to raise the glucose levels of people with type 2 diabetes directly.
  • Headaches. Stress is considered one of the most common triggers for headaches — not just tension headaches, but migraines as well.
  • Depression and anxiety. It’s probably no surprise that chronic stress is connected with higher rates of depression and anxiety. One survey of recent studies found that people who had stress related to their jobs—like demanding work with few rewards—had an 80% higher risk of developing depression within a few years than people with lower stress.
  • Gastrointestinal problems. Here’s one thing that stress doesn’t do — it doesn’t cause ulcers. However, it can make them worse. Stress is also a common factor in many other GI conditions, such as chronic heartburn (GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  • Alzheimer’s disease. One animal study found that stress might worsen Alzheimer’s disease, causing brain lesions to form more quickly. Some researchers speculate that reducing stress has the potential to slow down the progression of the disease.
  • Accelerated aging. There’s actually evidence that stress can affect how you age. One study compared the DNA of mothers who were under high stress due to caring for a chronically ill child with women who were not. Researchers found that a particular region of the chromosomes showed the effects of accelerated aging. Stress seemed to accelerate aging about 9 to 17 additional years.
  • Premature death. A study looked at the health effects of stress by studying elderly caregivers looking after their spouses—people who are naturally under a great deal of stress. It found that caregivers had a 63% higher rate of death than people their age who were not caregivers.

We can’t choose our families, but we can choose our friends

Some people are a joy to be with and their loving presence nurtures and encourages us. Others may have the opposite effect: draining us of energy and making us feel tired or exhausted through constant emotional bullying and manipulation.

We must refuse to allow ourselves to be treated poorly, and we must remind our patients of this as well—particularly during high-stress, low-light seasons such as the holidays.

Medical science has proven that social groups (or family dynamics) can affect DNA expression. 

In a research study, 10 happy and friendly people were placed in a room and when their stress hormones were checked, they showed healthy hormone levels. One person was added who was acting sad or fearful and the other peoples’ stress hormones increased. This is called “social transcriptomic,” in other words, your DNA expresses differently dependent on your social environment!

Beyond the holiday season, we can help our patients think more deeply about who they choose to spend time with.

By doing so, it becomes easier for them to work toward filling their lives with people who help to cultivate healthy and positive relationships. Obviously it is not always possible—at work for example—to be picky, but they can take control over choosing healthy relationships outside of work.

How do we help guide our patients toward healthy social groups?

Ask them to take a few moments to reflect on how another person makes them feel. Assessing people in such a way allows them to see if the person adds something constructive to, or subtracts from, their lives. If a friend saps strength and joy, they can simply decide to tell them how they feel or spend less time with them.

The moment that patients get honest about their own feelings, the more candid they can be with others. While this may involve some drastic changes to their social life, it can bring about a truly empowering personal transformation. By surrounding themselves with positive people, they clear away the negative distractions and create more room for nurturing and renewed energy. Doing this will not only enrich their lives, but also envelop them in a supportive and healing space.

Remind your patients to choose their friends with care, as social groups create an environment to either thrive or wilt. While it is wonderful to offer kindness and compassion to many, remind patients to share their dreams and goals only with those who value them and show it.

“What really matters is that you do what you think is right, what you believe in, and you surround yourself with the people you care about in this world. That’s what counts in this life.” – Brian Dennehy

Related: PODCAST: Adapt to Holiday Stress with These Simple Techniques



Jim Paoletti, Dir of Education

Jim Paoletti, BS Pharmacy, FAARFM, FIACP, is the Director of Education at Power2Practice and a Clinical Consultant with over 30 years’ experience creating and using bio-identical hormone therapies in both retail pharmacy and clinical practice.

Jim is a Diplomat in Functional Medicine in addition to being a former faculty member for the Fellowship of Functional Medicine.

At Power2Practice, Jim applies his wealth of knowledge and experience by hosting live webinars and creating useful content, such as blogs, podcasts and clinical support tools.