How to look after your mental and physical health this Christmas season

Safeguard your sanity this silly season.

The festive season can add extra pressure to our already fast-paced lives, whether it's social engagements, financial stress or dealing with family dynamics.
Health-wise, it can be a tricky time to navigate so don't kick your normal self-care routines to the curb. Having a good breakfast and doing a morning meditation will keep your energy levels high in the face of late nights and over-indulgence.
It's natural to vary your routine over a holiday period, so rather than expecting to keep up the same type and amount of exercise, for example, consider hikes with the family and walks with friends in new places.
Annaliese Jones, Nadia naturopath and medical herbalist, offers ideas for keeping your diet and nervous system balanced this holiday season.

Safeguard your emotional health

If anxiety is usually a problem for you, this time of year may seem even more difficult.
The pressure from many directions can be overwhelming. Budgeting for gifts, cooking, planning time away, hoping everyone gets along… a simple visualisation of your ideal stress-free Christmas can help.
Envision your holiday going well and think about how that will become a reality. Do you need to ask for help? Finish work a day earlier?
It's also helpful to remember that things will inevitably go wrong, and practise acceptance around this.
Stress, lack of sleep and alcohol can take a toll on B-vitamin levels, which are essential for your nervous system. Increase your intake of vitamin B-rich foods such as nuts and seeds, asparagus, green, leafy vegetables, eggs and red meat, and avoid caffeine, which can increase anxiety.
If the holidays are a sad time for any reason and low moods tend to creep up on you, consider a nervous system tonic such as Withania somnifera or St John's wort.
The latter should only be taken with the advice of a GP and herbalist as it doesn't suit everyone and has some contraindications, but it can be very effective with the right dosage.
Withania is readily available and bolsters your adrenal resilience in the face of busy times and extra stress. It takes a few weeks to kick in, so plan ahead and nurture your nervous system.

Liver love

Festive celebrations often add to the normal workload of detoxification.
Your liver cells use three enzymes to metabolise alcohol and they generally do it well. But if detoxification processes can't keep up, over time, the liver struggles.
If you think you might be over-indulging, I recommend taking a herb such as milk thistle or Schisandra chinensis to help.
Increase your intake of food and drink your liver loves such as water, green leafy veges and sulphurous foods such as onions, garlic and Brussels sprouts.
If you have bloating, constipation or diarrhoea at the best of times, overindulging could turn up the volume on your discomfort.
Taking your diet back to basics with well-cooked vegetables, stewed fruit and herbal teas for a week to natural aid detoxing can really help.
If you're worried, be sure to check in with a professional.
Mindfulness teacher and workplace wellness facilitator Kirsty Von Minden shares strategies for cultivating relaxation and gratitude in the lead up to Christmas.

Actively create calm

As the end of the year nears and our plates (and diaries) feel fuller than ever, stress can start becoming a way of life.
One simple tip for taking back control and stress levels is to establish a calming morning routine. As the saying goes: win the morning, win the day.
Checking your phone first thing, multitasking and rushing out the door are all likely to tip you into a 'fight or flight' state, activated by the sympathetic strand of your nervous system.
The earlier we engage the 'fight or flight' response, the more likely the nervous system is to establish this as your default setting, meaning you will feel more anxious and sensitive to stressors throughout the day.
Creating a morning routine that promotes 'rest and digest' is key to setting your day up for calm, especially if you're not naturally a morning person.

5 ways to promote your relation response in the morning:

10 x diaphragmatic breaths as soon as you wake up:
Slow, deep stomach breathing sends a signal to your brain that you are safe.
Try putting your hands on your tummy and focusing on the rise and fall, really extending the exhale and relaxing your body.
Keep off your phone:
Most of us reach for our smartphone the minute we rise, checking emails, messages and our calendar before our brain has had a chance to wake up.
We can also end up wasting time on social media and, before we know it, we're running late.
Do things slowly:
Set your alarm a little earlier and resist the urge to rush out the door – this sends danger signals to your brain.
Five minutes of mindfulness:
Try either a quick guided meditation using an app (Headspace or Calm are good) or simply engage your senses by listening to the birds outside or enjoying the taste and smell of your morning coffee.
Get moving:
Try some gentle exercise before the day gets away on you – movement cancels out the stress response and gets the feelgood endorphins flowing.

Practice gratitude

We all know that being grateful is good for us, but did you know there is strong scientific evidence to suggest that a regular gratitude practice can have a profound and positive impact on our brain?
Our brain has an inbuilt negativity bias. This means we are more sensitive to unpleasant news and events. It also means we don't pay as much attention to and tend to forget life's more positive experiences.
This bias most likely evolved from an evolutionary need to keep us out of harm's way.
Survival depended on our ability to notice and react to danger. However, in these safe and abundant times, this doesn't always serve us well.
By regularly pausing to express what we are grateful for, we can rewire our brains to scan for and notice the good.
Researchers suggest that practicing gratitude actually changes our mindset – the more you practise feeling and expressing gratitude, the more easily gratitude will come to you spontaneously in the future.
It feels good while we are practising it, too.
Our brain is flooded with the chemical dopamine, which rewards us with a natural high and motivates us to continue to be thankful.
Research on gratitude shows that these neurological effects also open the doors to many other health benefits, including decreased pain levels, better sleep, more energy, and reduced stress, anxiety and depression.
The key with a gratitude practice is establishing it as a part of your daily routine so it becomes effortless.
Find something you do every day as a trigger to remind you, for example:
  • Write three things you're grateful for on the shower wall while your conditioner sets
  • Write in a journal first thing while you enjoy your morning cup of tea
  • Practise with your loved ones at the dinner table
It can help to share with others, to really embed the experience in your brain.
This Christmas could be a great time to sit with your family and each name three immaterial things you are grateful for.
Yoga teacher Kelly Baker suggests a sweet simple sunshine meditation to help bring balance to a busy time of the year

Let the sun shine in

Practise this 3C (crown, chest and core) meditation in the park on a sunny day.
This is a simple way to recharge during your lunch break, on the weekend or after dropping the kids to school.
  • Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, turn your mind inward and check in with yourself.
  • Notice your breath, your body, your energy levels, your thoughts… yes, your body can hear you, so be kind!
  • Imagine the sun's rays entering the crown of your head, washing over you like a warm shower of light, flowing along your spine, then through the heart and chest,
    down to your core.
  • The simple act of allowing this life force and vitamin D into your body, along with the intention that it is nourishing you, will help create a profoundly relaxed state of being.
  • Spend five minutes basking in this warmth, then take that feeling of sunshine into your day!

Take balance inspiration from the Swedes and Spaniards

Sobremesa is a Spanish term for "the period of relaxed conversation around the dinner table, following a meal".
We often do this naturally at a festive occasion, but struggle to remember to make time for it in the rush of our day-to-day lives – why not bring this practice into the new year?
Lagom is a Swedish description for having "just the right amount".
This alternative view to consumerism and excess is worth keeping in mind during Christmas celebrations, when over-indulging can leave you uncomfortable, gift-giving can be overwhelming and waste can be rife.

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