From time to time, the resident physician at Google headquarters weighs in with her thoughts on healthy living. This is not medical advice, and you should check with your own doctor before pursuing any particular course of action.

Watching scenes of fists flying over an LCD monitor during a holiday sale made me wonder about stress, and how one can maintain a holiday spirit at a stressful time of year. According to Stedman's Medical Dictionary, it's stress, not the holidays, that make the body react to "forces of a deleterious nature that disturb its normal physiologic equilibrium." That sounds bad.

There is extensive research that confirms the harmful effects of stress when it occurs continuously with out the relaxation phase. In the international INTERHEART study, patients with a first heart attack reported significantly more stress in financial, home and work-related situations than the control studies. In another study of 1055 medical students who were followed for 36 years, it was found that those who had a higher anger response to stress had higher risk of developing premature heart disease (before age 55). Even exposure to traffic has been implicated. ( has more references if you are interested.)

Stress can also adversely impact high blood pressure, cholesterol, immune response, skin disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, intestinal motility, diabetes, cancer survival, and other conditions. It is now considered to be as much a risk factor as obesity, smoking, and sedentary life style so learning to counteract this response is important.

Although the external stress factors (irritating co-workers, hurricanes) are hard to control, there are several ways to reduce the internal stress response. Here's a short list - check it twice:
  • Make a list and prioritize. It's OK if the holiday cards don't go out until 1/2...07.
  • Exercise. No, it's not the answer to everything, but it has been shown to decrease the stress hormones.
  • Take a vacation (break with tradition! A year-end getaway might help limit stress). If not a vacation, at least take a stroll, or take deep breaths while counting to 10.
  • Hugging for 20 seconds has been shown to reduce blood pressure.
Beyond these immediate steps, you can find many resources via the University of Massachusetts' Stress Reduction Program and Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, including local referrals. Or check the nonprofit Omega Institute for a vacation centered around stress reduction.

If you still feel you're under severe stress, or you're not improving with any of the above measures, then please do consult your doctor. And here's my advice: if the turkey is rubbery, use it as an exercise ball. Happy holidays, everyone.