Psychology expert offers advice for less stress, more joy during the holidays

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January 26, 2012 - Lisa Feldman Barrett, Distinguished Professor of Psychology and director of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory. Dr. Barrett’s research focuses on the nature of emotion from both psychological and neuroscience perspectives, and takes inspiration from anthropology, philosophy, and linguistics. Her lab takes an interdisciplinary perspective approach, and incorporates methods from social, clinical, and personality psychology, psychophysiology, cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, and visual cognition.

News at Northeastern

The holidays are billed as a time of joy, but they can also be a time of increased stress for many people. We asked psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett about that stress and what we can do to minimize the feelings that result. Photo by iStock

The hol­i­days are billed as a time of joy, but they can also be a time of increased stress for many people. In addi­tion, Wednesday, Dec. 21, is the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year, with the sun set­ting in Boston at the early hour of 4:15 p.m. Sea­sonal affec­tive dis­order, or SAD, is a form of major depres­sion that often strikes in these shorter, darker days.

We asked Lisa Feldman Bar­rett, Uni­ver­sity Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Psy­chology at North­eastern, why the hol­i­days affect so many of us this way and what we can do to min­i­mize the dif­fi­cult emo­tions we may experience.

We gen­er­ally attribute increased stress to external sources: We feel we have too much to do, or the season reminds us of past losses and what is missing in our lives today. How­ever, in your forth­coming book, How Emo­tions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, you posit a theory that says we “con­struct” instances of stress because of how our brains work. What does that mean?

Just as a large com­pany has a finan­cial office that parses its rev­enues and expenses to develop bud­gets for var­ious accounts, you, too, have a “finan­cial office”—your brain. While your brain cre­ates thoughts, feel­ings, and per­cep­tions, it also man­ages the budget for all the accounts in your body, for example, nutri­ents such as water, salt, and glu­cose, a simple sugar that is our cells’ pri­mary energy source. There’s a tech­nical term for keeping these accounts in bal­ance: allostasis. At cer­tain times, say, when you exer­cise, your mus­cles may need more glu­cose than your diges­tive system, and it is the brain’s job to divvy up the resources appro­pri­ately to keep the bal­ance. If you exer­cise for long enough, then the brain may use up more nutri­ents than is com­fort­able, and you’ll lose that bal­ance.  Your brain will then cor­rect it once you step off the tread­mill by, per­haps, cuing you to eat a snack.

For the brain to manage your body’s budget effi­ciently, it must be able to pre­dict what your body will need so the resources will meet the need before it arises. For example, if your brain is preparing you for a sprint, it will increase your blood pres­sure and move glu­cose into your mus­cles before the action starts so you can, lit­er­ally, hit the ground run­ning. Overall, your brain is very good at its budget-​​balancing task.

Stress results when the bal­ance goes off kilter and the body is taxed. Now, there is “good” stress, like that expe­ri­enced in the exer­cise example above. You have a moment of imbal­ance for the greater good (exer­cise ben­e­fits your heart, brain, and other organs) that you can quickly cor­rect, here with a snack and some water. How­ever, if your brain is con­stantly preparing your body to deal with a threat that never mate­ri­al­izes, the imbalance—the stress—becomes chronic: You feel as if you are car­rying the weight of the world on your shoul­ders. The sen­sa­tions trans­late as affect (feeling pleasant or unpleasant, feeling acti­vated or calm), which is a raw ingre­dient of emo­tions: You expe­ri­ence fatigue, depres­sion, anx­iety, guilt, shame, dis­gust, and agitation.

Why does our stress often increase during the hol­iday season?

We are a social species. Unbe­knownst to us, we reg­u­late each others’ ner­vous sys­tems all the time: through smell, touch, sounds, and vision, and even through the words we speak to one another. Indeed, the sys­tems in the brain that are impor­tant for lan­guage con­nect directly to cir­cuitry that reg­u­lates our body budget. That means other people can help bal­ance that body budget or, con­versely, send it off course. Either may happen more fre­quently during the hol­i­days because we are sur­rounded by others so often.

January 26, 2012 - Lisa Feldman Barrett, Distinguished Professor of Psychology and director of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory.  Dr. Barrett’s research focuses on the nature of emotion from both psychological and neuroscience perspectives, and takes inspiration from anthropology, philosophy, and linguistics. Her lab takes an interdisciplinary perspective approach, and incorporates methods from social, clinical, and personality psychology, psychophysiology, cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, and visual cognition.

Lisa Feldman Bar­rett, Uni­ver­sity Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Psy­chology Photo by Mary Knox Merrill/​Northeastern University

There is a Dutch word, gezellig, that can be trans­lated to mean cozy, nice atmos­phere, a sense of belonging, time spent with loved ones. That is the pos­i­tive side of being with other people—you feel a syn­chrony, your loved ones con­tribute to your allostasis.  Their body bud­gets are helping yours and vice versa. If you spend too much time alone, during the hol­i­days or at other times, your body budget suf­fers because your brain is trying to manage it all on its own. There’s another neg­a­tive side, too, which can be char­ac­ter­ized by the Eng­lish word angst: annoying family mem­bers, large par­ties where you know very few guests, that hole in the gut when you’re reminded of someone you lost. It can send your blood pres­sure soaring, your throat constricting.

What are some ways we can coun­teract stress during the holidays?

There are sev­eral lifestyle choices that ease your brain’s job of man­aging your body budget.

Get enough sleep. Dif­ferent people need dif­ferent amounts of sleep, but seven to eight hours is the stan­dard rec­om­men­da­tion. Lack of sleep is one of the great body-​​budget de-​​regulators. It throws off your body’s cir­ca­dian rhythm, the normal rise and fall of the hor­mones that wake you up and wind you down.

Exer­cise in a way that suits you. If you love to run, going out for a jog may be a great de-​​stressor, but if you don’t, it may have the oppo­site effect. Figure out what form of exer­cise makes you feel good. You might choose to go for a restora­tive swim, or for a leisurely walk in a park or around the block, working to stay present in the moment by paying atten­tion to details in the world around you. If you have the time and resources, con­sider a mas­sage or yoga ses­sions. Mas­sage can be extremely helpful because it is known to stim­u­late the opi­oids in the skin and reduce inflam­ma­tion in the body. A gentle massage—a friend rub­bing your shoulders—could be just as effec­tive as a deep tissue massage.

Eat health­fully. High-​​fat, high-​​sugar, highly processed car­bo­hy­drates are deli­cious and may feel like com­fort food but they actu­ally work against keeping your body budget in bal­ance over the long term. Be sure you are eating salads, fruits and veg­eta­bles, lean pro­tein, and whole grains.

What role does light play in the devel­op­ment of sea­sonal affec­tive disorder?

The retina, a part of the brain, is a layer at the back of the eye that con­verts light energy into nerve sig­nals, enabling you to see. Gan­glion cells in the retina not only receive visual infor­ma­tion; they also reg­u­late your cir­ca­dian rhythm, which, as men­tioned above, is the cyclical rise and fall of hor­mones that in turn wake you up and make you sleepy. A dis­rup­tion in your cir­ca­dian rhythm knocks your body budget for a loop.

The lack of light is one factor that can tax your body budget, leading to a state of depres­sion. Many other fac­tors can con­tribute as well, including a genetic pre­dis­po­si­tion and trauma. In severe depres­sion, the brain may stop pro­cessing infor­ma­tion cor­rectly from the out­side world, leading to faulty pre­dic­tions regarding needs and, in turn, extreme energy deficits.

What are some ways we can coun­teract depres­sion during these darker days?

We go out­side less when it’s dark, are more seden­tary, and may sleep too much, again throwing off our cir­ca­dian rhythm. In addi­tion, because we stay inside more, we often don’t get enough vit­amin D; our bodies require sun­light to pro­duce vit­amin D. A vit­amin D defi­ciency can upset your body budget, as it inter­feres with your thy­roid and other functions.

All of this points to making sure that you spend time out­doors, in nat­ural light—try for a walk every day, if pos­sible. Nothing replaces being out in the light. Even when it’s cloudy, the sun’s rays get through. While walking, cul­ti­vate an appre­ci­a­tion for what you see, hear, smell, touch. Even on the grayest day, you can find some­thing that will inspire a sense of beauty or awe. And that’s what the hol­iday season is sup­posed to be about.

(Republished with permission from News at Northeastern.)

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