Motherly Collective

As a mom to four amazing, energetic little ones, I deeply understand the whirlwind of the holiday season stress. The holidays are a magical time, but let’s be real—they can be incredibly overwhelming for parents, and mothers especially.

There’s the never-ending to-do list: organizing activities for the kids, tackling the shopping, planning those special family events, and, of course, keeping up with the daily chores. Then there’s the emotional side of it. You feel this intense pressure to keep everything on track, to make sure each task is ticked off so that everyone in the home feels happy, comfortable and emotionally supported. 

This mental load often stems from a few deep-rooted issues like control issues, people-pleasing and perfectionism. Each of these can significantly contribute to the sense of being overwhelmed, especially during the holidays.

Traditional narratives on managing holiday stress for moms often emphasize emotional aspects like being more present, feeling adequate and setting boundaries. While these approaches are valid, I’d like to introduce a different perspective: a nervous-system approach grounded in nervous system and body awareness.

Despite my extensive background in health care, spanning over 25 years as an oral surgeon, health educator, researcher and entrepreneur, I faced my own struggle with burnout and chronic symptoms that significantly affected my life. This experience led me to delve deeply into my own health, learning how to reshape my stress response and heal my dysregulated nervous system. This journey inspired me to create Heal Your Nervous System, where, along with a team of researchers and practitioners, we’ve helped thousands of people around the world do the same through our digital health program.

Understanding the stress response

This perspective requires you to view your holiday stress and feelings of being overwhelmed through the lens of your stress response. The stress response is a physiological reaction of your nervous system to challenges or demands. Your body is always in some state of stress arousal, varying in intensity and impact.

Stress researchers, including Elissa Epel, PhD and her team at the University of California, San Francisco, have compiled a significant amount of recent research on stress, particularly studies that have emerged following the Covid pandemic. They’ve categorized this research into four distinct states of stress arousal.

  1. Deep rest and cellular regeneration (Rest and digestion): This state is characterized by profound relaxation and is crucial for cellular repair and regeneration. It’s when the body engages in restorative processes, allowing for digestion and recuperation.
  2. Relaxation and focus: In this balanced state, stress levels are optimized—high enough to maintain focus and productivity, yet low enough to remain relaxed and in a state of flow. It’s a harmonious blend of alertness and calmness.
  3. Cognitive alertness and overload: This is a state of moderate stress activation. It involves heightened mental activity and often shows up as overthinking, rumination or catastrophizing. While this state can help in problem-solving and planning, prolonged periods here can be detrimental to our physical and mental health.
  4. Acute stress response and full alertness (fight or flight): This is the body’s high-alert state, often triggered in response to perceived threats. It’s characterized by a rapid heartbeat, faster breathing, and heightened senses. This state prepares us to confront or flee from immediate danger and is associated with full-blown anxiety.

Among these, one state particularly resonates with the holiday experience of many moms: cognitive overload. This state is characterized by heightened alertness and mental exertion. Unlike acute stress responses such as panic or anxiety, cognitive overload is more insidious. It manifests as a constant mental treadmill where thoughts race, often filled with worry, self-criticism and feelings of shame. Physiologically, it’s marked by faster heartbeats and tensed muscles—clear signs of an activated stress response.

Recognizing when you’re in this state of cognitive overload is the first step towards guiding your body and nervous system toward a state of reduced activation. This reduced state is not about being inactive or dull; it’s about maintaining an optimal level of alertness and activity, allowing you to be focused and truly enjoy your holiday season.

But how can you shift from a state of cognitive overload to a more relaxed and focused state? 

Addressing stress through nervous system regulation

The long-term solution targets the underlying cause of the overactive stress response: a dysregulated nervous system. This condition is often not just a result of immediate stressors but a cumulative effect of various stress experiences over time. Addressing this requires a deeper, more sustained effort to retrain and recalibrate your nervous system, helping it respond to stress in a more regulated and healthy way.

In the short term, particularly during the demanding holiday season, you can start by implementing simple, yet effective steps to support your body. The key lies in engaging with your body and nervous system in a way that communicates safety and relaxation.

These practices signal to your nervous system that it is safe, allowing it to shift from a state of high alert to one of relaxation. This is crucial because your body’s stress response is not just an emotional reaction; it’s deeply rooted in physical responses. By managing these emotional stresses through bodily practices first, you help ease the immediate feelings of being overwhelmed.

The following strategies are designed to support your body and nervous system, providing immediate relief and contributing to long-term regulation.

1. Supporting your circadian rhythm

Your body’s natural circadian rhythm is vital for maintaining balance. Spending time outdoors, especially in natural light, is crucial, even during the cold, dark winter days. Aim for at least two 10-minute vigorous walks each day, preferably in the early morning and late afternoon. Engaging with nature, like walking in a park, enhances this effect. Additionally, managing light exposure is important; dimming lights after sunset can significantly impact your circadian rhythm, signaling to your body that it’s time to wind down.

2. Incorporating body-based exercises

Physical activity is a powerful tool for signaling safety to your nervous system. This doesn’t necessarily mean high-intensity workouts; even everyday activities like carrying laundry baskets, taking out the trash, or playing physically engaging games with your kids can be beneficial. For a more structured approach, consider practices like body scans, gym exercises, yoga or pilates. These exercises help release tension and convey to your nervous system that it’s OK to relax.

3. Managing blood sugar levels

The holiday season often disrupts regular eating habits, leading to fluctuations in blood sugar levels, which can affect your mood and stress levels. To mitigate this, focus on incorporating more vegetables and fiber into your diet and consume them at each meal. Follow this with healthy proteins and fats, and save holiday treats for last, ensuring you don’t consume them on an empty stomach. This approach helps in stabilizing blood sugar levels and helps regulate your nervous system.

4. Supporting your gut microbiome

There’s a strong connection between gut health and the nervous system. A well-regulated gut microbiome can significantly influence your stress response and mood. Incorporate low-sugar or sugar-free fermented foods into your diet, such as yogurt, kefir, fermented cheese, and refrigerated fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi. Fermented vinegars like apple cider vinegar are also beneficial. These foods foster a diverse gut microbiome, which in turn supports your overall emotional and physiological regulation.

Rethinking stress and chronic stress management

I’d like to highlight an essential insight about stress: it’s not always the enemy we think it is. In fact, a wealth of scientific research suggests that experiencing low to moderate stress can actually bolster our resilience. The danger lies not in stress itself, but in becoming trapped in a relentless cycle of chronic stress, which has adverse effects on our health and nervous system.

Addressing chronic stress effectively requires a dual approach. Firstly, it’s important to implement body-based practices, like those I’ve shared above, to support your stress response during challenging times such as the holiday season. Remember, feeling stressed and overwhelmed is a natural part of the festive chaos—it’s a sign of your engagement with life’s demands and joys. Your body and nervous system have the remarkable capacity to not just endure this stress but to learn and grow stronger from it.

The second component of this strategy comes into play after the holiday season winds down. This is the time to address the underlying issues of chronic stress and dysregulation. Building a well-regulated, healthy stress response system is key to long-term well-being. 

To help you get started on this journey, I’ve created a free assessment: this tool is designed to evaluate your current state of nervous system dysregulation and offer personalized recommendations for the next steps.  
Additionally, I’m thrilled to announce my new book, “Heal Your Nervous System”, set to release in January 2024. The book is a deep dive into understanding nervous system dysregulation and provides a detailed roadmap for reversing it, equipping you with the knowledge and step-by-step strategies to restore a regulated and resilient stress response.

Remember, the best holiday present for your family is a mom who’s centered and at peace. Your journey towards a well-regulated nervous system is a gift that will keep giving, long after the festive decorations are packed away. Amid all the holiday activities, taking time for your well-being is not just good for you, but it’s a wonderful present for your loved ones. Happy holidays!

This story is a part of The Motherly Collective contributor network where we showcase the stories, experiences and advice from brands, writers and experts who want to share their perspective with our community. We believe that there is no single story of motherhood, and that every mother's journey is unique. By amplifying each mother's experience and offering expert-driven content, we can support, inform and inspire each other on this incredible journey. If you're interested in contributing to The Motherly Collective please click here.