‘Tis the season to be merry and gather those you love around to soak up quality time together. We really should be doing this all year round but it would seem that these days we are even too busy to spend time with our own family. I am sure this is why we look forward to the forthcoming holiday season so much. Sure, the food and presents are wonderful but if you really analyze why you look forward to this time of year, spending time with your loved ones would be top of the list and, believe it or not, it is actually good for our health.

Decreasing loneliness, helping with quitting smoking to making a difference in healthy eating habits, it is actually healthy to spend time with people you love. Your friends and family are highly influential when it comes to the kind of lifestyle you lead.

So with all this positive energy and love surrounding you why do we get so stressed at this time of year?

We tend to blame worsening traffic, crowded malls, and incessant commercials pushing holiday consumption, but a key culprit is our own memories, according to Ronald Nathan, PhD, clinical professor at Albany Medical College in New York. “When we think about the holidays, we dwell on the past and what went wrong, or we romanticize it and make it impossible to re-create,” he says. He tells people to examine their thoughts and expectations and not drive themselves crazy planning the perfect Thanksgiving dinner or finding the perfect gift. “Instead,” he says, “lower your expectations, and overestimate — rather than underestimate — your time.”

Stress and the Immune System

Easing up on yourself over the holidays is important because the connection between stress and illness is real, says Simon A. Rego, PsyD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and associate director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, N.Y.

“The controversy that stress causes disease is pretty much over. We’re now teasing out how stress does it,” he says. In fact, a new study explains how stress may weaken the immune system. Each cell contains a tiny “clock” called a telomere, which shortens each time the cell divides. To counter this effect, the body also produces an enzyme, telomerase, which protects the cell and prevents further shortening by adding more DNA to the end of the telomere.

So far, so good — but under stress, the body pumps out cortisol, a hormone that suppresses this protective enzyme. The study found that people under chronic stress have shorter telomeres, which, researchers say, means they are more vulnerable to a host of ailments.

So what can we do to stop ourselves feeling overwhelmed by a stressful situation?

Listen to music – try taking a break and listening to relaxing classical music. Playing calm music has a positive effect on the brain and body, can lower blood pressure, and reduce our levels of cortisol.

Call a friend or family member – talk about your problems. A reassuring voice, even for a minute, can put everything in perspective.

Exercise – you don’t have to run to your local gym or take a 40 minute walk, a short walk around the office or simply standing up to stretch during a break at work can offer immediate relief in a stressful situation. Getting your blood moving releases endorphins and can improve your mood almost instantaneously.

Take a deep breath – we have already featured several articles on the power of the breath and it certainly holds true when it comes to stress. While shallow breathing causes stress, deep breathing oxygenates your blood, helps center your body, and clears your mind.

Eat well – Stress levels and a proper diet are closely related. When time is limited and we have more to do we forget to eat well, try and keep healthy snacks available at all times during this time of year.

Laugh loud and often – Laughter releases endorphins that improve mood and decrease levels of the stress-causing hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Laughing tricks your nervous system into making you happy.

So this year invite as many of your friends and family to join you for the holiday celebrations, don’t stress the small stuff, just enjoy the healthy benefits that being with your friends and family will give you.