At this time of year, we greet each other with wishes of a happy holiday. Ironically, for many of us the season creates stress and happiness is the last thing the holidays are.
The long list of things to do, the pressure of finding the perfect gift, the arrival of guests and the addition of extra activities -- not to mention the financial burden -- can bring on a stocking full of anxiety.
To try to relieve anxiety, we may turn to food, alcohol, drugs or long hours on the couch in front of the television. All of these are attempts to take our mind off our worries or somehow change our brain chemistry to feel better, only to find they've made matters worse.
In fact, overeating leads to feelings of lethargy and weight gain, causing more anxiety. Overindulgence in alcohol and drugs has obvious negative consequences, and staying on the couch all day makes you tired.
The good news is there are strategies to change your state of mind and improve your mood that yield positive long-term effects. Physical activity, meditation, yoga and breathing exercises are all related to positive changes in outlook and decreased anxiety. When we walk, run, bike, swim, dance or engage in any physical activity, we generally feel happier.
There is a direct link between exercise and happiness.
Exercise not only benefits your heart and muscles, it stimulates your brain.
When the body is in motion, it requires the brain to kick into high gear. Our senses are heightened and we become increasingly aware of our environment thanks to the physical, chemical and emotional changes that occur during exercise.
In fact, exercise mimics the effect of antidepressants on the brain. Happiness and exercise are similar in that they both boost the immune system and the release of endorphins, which give athletes a feeling of euphoria during high-intensity exercise. They increase our ability to deal with pain and difficult situations.
Exercise increases antibody production, keeping you healthier and more energetic. In research surveys, healthy people have reported higher levels of happiness. The exercise-induced happiness improves the immune system independent of the physiological effects of exercise.
Another effect of exercise is its ability to lower cortisol levels in your body. Cortisol is released when you experience stress. The body goes into high alert, causing the heart rate and blood pressure to increase. Exercise uses cortisol and decreases the blood levels of cortisol in the body, reducing feelings of anxiety.
Also, your brain chemistry changes with physical activities. The amount of serotonin and dopamine in the blood stream affects mood and our sense of satisfaction. Dopamine is your fight-or-flight response. It creates the surge that drives us to accomplish and achieve. Serotonin releases tension and creates a sense of peace. When dopamine is high, a yoga class may be what you need. When serotonin is high, a good bout of cardiovascular exercise will get it revved up.
If you haven't started moving while you are reading this article, you may want to start now. A recent scientific finding suggests exercise can create new brain cells. You heard me right -- you can build new brain cells by exercising.
Meditation and breathing exercises are also effective in changing our state. Through the practice of observing the mind and connecting breath with our sensations and feeling, we gain a greater understanding of what is happening within our own minds and bodies.
A simple and effective breathing technique to lower anxiety is to take in a full, deep breath for four counts, hold for two counts, followed by a slow exhale for eight counts, hold for two counts and repeat. Do five to 10 cycles of this breath sequence and notice the change in how you feel. Practise it while standing in cashier lineups during the holidays.
Exercise alone may not change the negative feelings you have, but it is a step in the right direction.
Happiness is unique to each of us and what gives us a sense of joy differs based on our values and beliefs. Acts of kindness and gratitude during the holidays are a powerful stimulant for well-being.
So, the next time you wish someone "Happy holidays," follow it up with, "See you at the gym."
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013