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Ten tips for staying well this holiday season

Saturday, 1 December 2018  
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VetScript Editor's pick - December 2018

Canadian veterinary specialist Marie K Holowaychuk offers valuable advice for surviving the Christmas and New Year break.

The holidays are upon us! While this time of year is exciting and energising for many people, it can be exhausting and illness provoking for others. It is important that we do not get lost in the hustle and bustle of travelling, buying presents, entertaining family and friends, attending parties and other holiday shenanigans, and ensure that we take steps to preserve our mental and physical health. Here are 10 tips to stick to when working to preserve your wellbeing during the busy holiday season.

    We are bombarded with chocolates, baking and other goodies at this time of year, whether given as gifts from clients or co-workers, or served during holiday parties. It is nice to indulge in your favourite treats occasionally, but at this time of year we often fall into a pattern of unhealthy eating. If possible, make an effort to limit sugar intake by requesting your holiday espresso beverage ‘halfsweet’, restricting your alcohol intake, and limiting the number of treats that you eat. It also helps to eat as many vegetables as you can (always choosing vegetables over fruit, which is a natural source of sugar) in order to fill yourself with healthy food that provides muchneeded vitamins and allows you to feel more ‘full’ so that you eat fewer treats.

    Making time for a walk in the woods or a trip to the lake can be incredibly therapeutic at this time of year. Just 15 minutes in nature decreases cortisol concentrations by 15%, and two hours increases mental functioning, including attention span and memory, by 20%. So head outside.

    So often at this time of year we move exercise to the bottom of our priorities. This can have detrimental effects on our mental health, and can leave us feeling sluggish, tired and anxious. Many people have the misconception that unless exercise is performed for at least 30 to 60 minutes, the benefits are minimal. In fact recent studies demonstrate that short bursts of high-intensity exercise (20-second sprints on a stationary bike or treadmill, with two minutes of rest in between, for 10 minutes) has equal physical health benefits to 50 minutes of steady aerobic exercises (maintaining a steady moderate pace). This means that even if you have just 20 minutes in the morning to exercise, plan to do something high intensity and know that you are getting the same benefits as someone jogging for almost an hour.

    Mindfulness, or the non-judgemental awareness of experiences in the present moment, has a plethora of benefits, including decreasing stress (no shortage of that during family visits), improving processing of emotions (which can run high at this time of year), shortening the duration and severity of colds (who doesn’t get sick during the holidays?) and improving sleep (very important – see tip 10). With all these benefits, how can we not justify taking moments out of our day to pause, tune into our senses (smell, sound, touch, taste) and notice thoughts and sensations as they arise in our mind and body? When you find yourself waiting in line or stuck in traffic, take a moment to bring attention to your breath and body, and tune in to yourself.

    Meditation is a way to formally practise mindfulness, and has the same benefits as mentioned above. While there are many myths and misconceptions around meditation and who can ‘actually do it’, the reality is that anyone, anywhere, anytime can meditate. All you need is five minutes of quiet stillness when you can sit or lie down, bring awareness to your breath, and notice the sensations and thoughts that arise. Then without attaching to the thoughts or sensations or letting them carry you into a series of other thoughts or stories, let them go and bring your attention back to your breath.

    So often we rush through our entire day engaging in shallow breathing, only to feel exhausted and depleted by the time the evening rolls around. Deep, conscious breathing has many benefits, including improving energy levels, activating the parasympathetic (restorative) nervous system, improving digestion, relieving tension and reducing reactivity. Place a hand on your belly and chest and notice where the movement is more predominant. Then see if you can take five to 10 deep belly breaths where you consciously pull air deep into the chest, move your diaphragm down, and expand your belly.

    Satisfying social connections allow us to have a more positive outlook on life, form more secure attachments, have more constructive interactions and engage in more efficient restorative behaviours. While there is no shortage of social engagements at this time of year, very often they are filled with contrived, superficial conversations with people we do not know well. It is important to continue to make time for the people in our lives with whom we have healthy relationships. Be sure to schedule coffee dates with close friends and family members in between all the other busy holiday gatherings.

    Playtime is not just for kids! Benefits for adults include stress relief (releasing endorphins), improving brain function, stimulating imagination and improving relationships and connections with others. Playtime is when you forget about work and commitments and are social in an unstructured way. Examples of ways to engage in play include playing board games, going out for bowling or karaoke and having unstructured time at the park.

    Downtime is more than doing household chores in between the holiday chaos. It is inactivity, or doing nothing that has a predetermined goal. Among the numerous benefits of downtime, the most important is taking a break from the stress and anxiety of decision-making, which is considered a ‘limited resource’ brain activity. For a few moments every day, consciously engage in doing nothing, and surrender to letting your mind wander in any direction that it chooses.

    Sleep is probably one of the most important activities that we do during the day, despite it feeling like a ‘pointless waste of time’. During sleep, our memories are consolidated, tasks replayed, experiences integrated and emotions processed. Without the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night, we are at risk of a weakened immune system, impaired brain function, moodiness and many physical health problems. So, while it is tempting to cram as many activities as we can into our holiday schedules, be sure to maintain your typical sleep regimen by setting an alarm for bedtime, turning off electronics one to two hours before bed, and limiting caffeine intake within six hours of sleep.

Marie K Holowaychuk is a Canadian small animal emergency and critical care specialist and certified yoga and meditation teacher, with an invested interest in the health and wellbeing of veterinary professionals. She facilitates wellness workshops, boot camps and retreats for veterinarians, veterinary technicians, students and other veterinary care providers. This column originally appeared in her newsletter. For more information and to sign up to her free newsletter, please visit: