A safe and happy holiday is within reach

Dec 9, 2017

The much-anticipated holiday season is full of joy, but it’s also full of dashing through the snow to the mall with a cold to get some last-minute gifts. It’s seeing relatives you wished you could spend time with more often and some you wish you could write off altogether. And while setting up your Christmas light display makes the grandkids happy, it also means getting up on your very steep roof.

Like anything, the holiday season has pros and cons. In this holiday special, we’ll try to get you off on the right foot. Whether it’s staying healthy, keeping track of your finances in this busy spending time, or focusing on the positive when you’re hosting 20 relatives for dinner -- there are ways to start off 2018 relatively unscathed. First, we’ll focus on physical health.

Credit adaenn / Flickr

Avoiding a cold this season

You need two things to get sick, according to our first guest, you need a germ and your body needs to support the growth of that germ. It’s about a 50/50 chance for most of us. As far as not getting sick, we’ll let Dr. Ellen Foxman handle that one. She’s assistant professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine.

“The best thing is if you can avoid getting those germs in your nose in the first place. And for that it’s just the classic stuff that your doctor or even your teachers or your mom is going to tell you,” Foxman says.

The second thing is a bit more complicated. Foxman says it’s not completely clear what makes our bodies more resistant to a virus at one time versus another, but there are some common sense things to focus on to stay healthy:

  • Get a good night sleep
  • Take care of yourself, in general

Degrees make a difference

Foxman’s team has been working on finding and studying the natural defense mechanisms our bodies use to fight colds and infections. In one of these mechanisms, changing the temperature of cells by just a few degrees can determine how well a virus grows. Here’s what some of the studies suggest:

“There is some credence to the idea that inhaling cold air and having the inside lining of your nose and your upper airway be exposed to cooler temperatures diminishes your body’s ability to fight respiratory viruses,” Foxman says.

Avoiding a cold is one thing, but what about a more serious injury?

Putting the ER into cheer

It’s time to put up the twinkle lights! Hopefully you remember where your ladder is. Every season has its own set of mishaps (firing up the barbeque grill for the first time doesn’t always go smoothly, either). We’re joined by Dr. Michael Boniface to talk about some of these accidents and how to avoid them. He’s clinical instructor and senior associate consultant in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida.

"...some of these injuries and illnesses may not necessarily be what you expect."

“We actually do see a spike in volume in the emergency department during the holidays and in particular the day following a holiday. But some of these injuries and illnesses may not necessarily be what you expect,” Boniface says.

For example: general falls, car accidents, nausea, vomiting and illnesses. Pretty general. Although some of the injuries you’d expect, and maybe picture from “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” do occur.

“What’s interesting is that movie is now almost 30 years old and you have a middle-aged gentleman climbing up on the roof and that generation is now 30 years over and still climbing up on the roof on ladders … You can get in a lot of trouble pretty quickly,” says Boniface.

Speaking of Chevy Chase, ladder safety is integral to an injury-free holiday season. Here are some tips to avoid a fall, according to our guest:

  • Don’t climb up more than 2 or three feet without a spotter
  • Always have three points of contact on the ladder (one hand, two feet)
  • Be sure to use appropriate equipment

There are three main types of injuries from a fall: injuries of the extremities, torso and head.

“And, depending on your age, you’re at higher risk for each depending on the height you fall from,” Boniface says.

Credit Ashley Lessel / Flickr

Don’t delay

If you think something necessitates an emergency room visit, you shouldn’t delay the trip because of a busy schedule, house guests or fear of missing out, Boniface says.

“What’s an interesting phenomenon that we’ll see in our emergency department -- and most emergency departments across the country -- is the holiday itself actually tends to be pretty slow,” he says. “We see smaller volumes during the day on Thanksgiving, Christmas and other major holidays. But we’ll find that later that evening, or particularly the next day, people will say ‘Okay … let’s go get this checked out.’”

If you end up with an injury, let’s say a cut, our guest recommends that you come seek care immediately, “because there’s a direct relationship as far as how long it takes to clean the wound out and close it with stitches and the chance of wound infections.”

Take note: Boniface does mention that many urgent care facilities are also open around the holidays, so you may be able to avoid a high-cost trip if you only have a minor injury. We can’t promise that will be the case for the rest of your holiday expenses, though.

Credit syd delicious / Flickr

Dollars and sense

You need to spend a little extra to get into the holiday spirit right?

“There is this expectation to make things perfect or to do it all,” our next guest says. Dr. Vaile Wright is director of research and special projects at the American Psychological Association and a member of the Stress in America team. “And so that ends up in overspending and hosting these parties; wanting to provide gifts that will impress others; put up the decorations that make you feel like your house is the best-decorated house and sometimes that exceeds our budgets.”

Financial concerns, in general, are often a significant source of stress for the majority of the population. There are a few things that make this the case, according to Wright: people are worried about paying bills, saving, retirement and unexpected expenses.

Increased commercialism around the holidays can make this an especially trying time on individuals who are usually good with money.

“We end up forgetting about the traditions that we have that are important to us and whether or not they actually line up with our goals and our values,” Wright says.

And that can impact more than just your wallet. Demanding circumstances (from positive or negative events) lead to a combination of both physical and emotional responses.

“When we can’t manage that stress and it becomes chronic over time, we have a lot of research that suggests it has negative physical and mental health consequences,” Wright says.

These include increases in obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, insomnia, depression and anxiety disorders.

"We end up forgetting about the traditions that we have that are important to us and whether or not they actually line up with our goals and our values."

Wright’s recommendation is to talk about money and maintain an open dialogue about finances with your spouse or kids or family. It will get everyone on the same page when it comes to expectations about prioritizing money, she says.

So now that you’re on the same page about this year’s budget, how do you get on the same page about this year’s menu? Finding a main course that works for your family, your sister’s gluten-free child and your vegetarian uncle isn’t easy.

Eating (and feeding others) around the holiday

Don’t plan to treat yourself. That’s the main takeaway from Dr. Jennifer Sygo. She’s a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist with Cleveland Clinic Canada and also happens to be the team dietitian for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“Instead of treating it as ‘Well, I’m going to cheat, so I’ll just eat the whole pie,’” Sygo says to treat it as a pleasure and as something you can include in your diet if it’s limited. “It’s a bit of a mindshift away from this sort of guilt mindset that we get into a lot.”

If you’d like to be mindful and in control this holiday season, assume that desserts are going to start at 250 calories and go up from there. Some other things to look out for:

  • Mashed potatoes, which can often contain whole milk and a lot of butter
  • Egg nog is very tasty and very high in calories

Credit subherwal

If there are concerns about food allergies or other voluntary diet restrictions, you should start with clear communication.

“It’s very reasonable to ask them to bring something or contribute something if it’s a unique need of theirs and they are better equipped to manage that particular food item than you are,” Sygo says.

She adds to be aware of hidden ingredients, as well. Talking in advance, sticking to simple items and knowing that not everyone will be able to eat everything is key to avoiding stress during the holiday season.

Another key to avoiding stress: enjoying the company of others.

Get out your social calendar, it’s December

The holidays symbolize togetherness for a lot of people, whether its family flying in from across the country, volunteering at a local shelter or rekindling old friendships. For many, relationships like these are integral.

“After food and shelter, our greatest need is to feel a sense of belonging and positive connection to other people,” according to Emma Seppälä. She’s author of “The Happiness Track,” and in director positions at emotional intelligence, compassion and altruism centers at both Yale and Stanford.

Having positive connections to others, Seppälä says, predicts our psychological happiness and our physical health (recovery from disease, immune function and even longevity).

“But my holidays are always stressful!”

It’s true. Not all relationships are good relationships. Even a healthy relationship can have its ups and downs, but there are ways to counter negative stress during the holidays.

“Focus on what you can do for others,” Seppälä says. “So, instead of thinking only about how you’re feeling, think about what you can do to make things better for everyone else.”

Take some time to volunteer in your community, for example. And be sure to focus on self-care if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

“We can just name the stress,” Seppälä says. “Research shows that just labeling how we feel decreases how we feel … just acknowledging your emotions to yourself. And the second thing that’s very powerful is breathing.”

Count your blessings

According to our guest, studies have shown that gratitude increases happiness and can lead to lasting happiness over time. On top of that, gratitude can:

  • protect you from stress and negativity
  • lead to better relationships
  • improve sleep quality/duration
  • increase will power

“Going outside, meditating, breathing, all of those things can really help so that you can show up in the best way possible and make the best of the few moments that you have with your family,” Seppälä says.