It’s a matter of common sense that the festive season is amongst the least healthy times of the year. Statistically, it is characterised by a significant increase in circulatory diseases, which is likely caused by a combination of a delay in seeking healthcare advice, overindulgence in the course of festive meals and Christmas parties, and increased emotional stress. Whereas the former two make sense, but may not be perceived as a burden as such, stress definitely is.

Reduced hours of daylight have a well-documented effect on mood. Yet, the short hours of daylight around Christmas are no more than icing on the cake. The days preceding Christmas are a minefield of stressors, ranging from increased workload towards the end of the year to various social duties, such as buying gifts and attending celebrations. Spending time with one’s family may help combat stress, but is also abound with factors that can make things even worse: The idyllic Christmas - a perfect time with one’s family, respectful conversations and great food - is not only a marketing trope that’s hard to evade these days, it also fuels expectation overload that will cause stress, once we realise that our unrealistic expectations are confronted by a well-intentioned mess of social complexity.

We have to thank a little molecule called cortisol for the fact that we can get stressed out in the first place. It is produced by our adrenal cortex and signals to the body that it’s time to divert resources to deal with a potentially life-threatening situation, entailing a so-called fight or flight response. From an evolutionary perspective this makes perfect sense of course! When you encounter a hungry bear in the wild, it makes perfect sense to get stressed by it, for this will focus your body’s resources on either facing the bear, or making a dash for it and getting away as quickly as possible.

Our animal brains are not attuned to life in modern society, where many, not in the least life-threatening situations trigger stress. The result can be chronic stress, which has numerous negative effects on our health. Apart from increasing the risk for suffering from cardiovascular diseases, chronic stress can cause or contribute to depression, panic attacks and deteriorating cognitive abilities. An extreme example of the latter has been demonstrated in several studies, where chronic stress triggered a reduction in the volume of certain brain areas in genetically predisposed individuals.

Of course, this does not mean that Christmas will make your brain shrink! However, we should consider it a cautionary tale of the dangers of prolonged stress. Christmas doesn’t have to contribute, and we should probably pause more often to free ourselves from unrealistic expectations and focus on the good intentions rather than on the resulting mess of social complexity.

About the author

Lukas Hutter studied chemistry in Graz and Systems Biology at the University of Oxford. He is a co-founder of Biotop and works as a teacher in Villach.

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