What happens to your body and brain over the holidays

  • Holiday get-togethers can be stress-inducing events.
  • Insider spoke to both psychologists and brain chemistry experts about what happens to our bodies during holidays, when we are reconnecting with family and old friends.
  • Their advice for navigating the season included tips on how to break out of negative behaviour patterns, and how to de-stress and relax before, during, and after social gatherings. Podcasts, music, and animals can all help.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

Whether it feels like “the most wonderful time of the year” or not, the holidays are synonymous with extra stress.

The period from late November through January in the US includes the country’s busiest travel day, as well as the most calorie-drenched meal Americans eat, and what’s generally regarded as the drunkest night of the year.

Insider spoke with four psychologists and hormone experts, who explained how our brains and bodies respond to these seasonal changes and offered suggestions for holiday survival.

The experts all agree that whether your holidays are full of glad tidings or not, the season of near constant get-togethers can be an especially anxiety-producing period. This makes self-care even more important.

“Overall, there’s an intensity to the experience that we don’t typically have in our day-to-day lives, so often our feelings and interactions feel heightened,” psychologist Paraskevi Noulas, an assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, wrote Insider in an email.

The different layers of stress we may experience “can cause significant anxiety, irritability, and tension,” she said.

These schedule changes can disrupt our daily hormone patterns, sending levels of stress-related steroids in our bodies, like cortisol, diving and soaring in real-time.

Holiday stress

Holiday gatherings can change testosterone, cortisol, and other hormone levels

Cortisol, our primary stress hormone, may go up and down a lot over holiday breaks, Robin Edelstein, an associate professor of psychology who studies hormones and relationships at the University of Michigan, told Insider.

“For some people, going home could be this very comforting experience, which could lower stress, decrease cortisol,” she said.

But that is not always the case. For example, imagine you’re about to miss your flight, and you’re running for the gate.

“Cortisol would go up really quickly,” Edelstein said.

This kind of acute stress can influence the hormones of significant others, too. During an argument, one person’s cortisol spike could make their partner’s skyrocket, which scientists have discovered is often a hallmark of relationship troubles. Conversely, the presence of a trusted partner could help another person feel less stressed when travelling. It all depends on the dynamics of the relationship, the situation, and the people involved.

The holidays can also shift sex hormone levels, which may prompt temporary changes in testosterone in both men and women.

“If you think of sort of the warm, happy, relaxing holiday weekend, that could probably lower testosterone,” Edelstein said. “But to the extent that there is competition and conflict, it might increase it.”

Oxytocin, another hormone that’s involved in some of our closest relationships and bonding experiences, can also wax and wane over the holidays, which may be a good thing during this period of extra pressure. Oxytocin is considered a natural antidote for stress, and it’s often called the “love hormone,” as it’s released during activities like hugging and sex.

“Physical contact, especially kind of caring, warm, physical contact, is related to changes in oxytocin levels,” Jennifer Bartz, an associate professor of psychology who studies interpersonal relationships and social behaviours at McGill University, told Insider.

A surge of oxytocin can relax a nursing mother, and it may help us recognise our kin and lubricate social connections, too. (It’s even been successfully trialed to boost social skills for some children with autism.)

Mother breastfeeding child

But a rush of oxytocin, despite it’s glowing reputation, doesn’t universally provide people with a warm and fuzzy boost. In some individuals, extra oxytocin can trigger anxiety and discomfort, a tendency that researchers like Bartz hypothesize may be linked to more anxious and avoidant attachment patterns.

It’s another reminder that how bodies react to the holidays is never a one-size-fits-all equation, and it’s dependent on a variety of internal and external factors.

“It’s not a pleasing answer, but these things are really complicated and no hormone or neurotransmitter acts in isolation,” Bartz said. “Taking a step back and thinking about what might be most adaptive for humans, it probably makes sense for there to be checks and balances, different factors that would make you not behave similarly in all situations.”

But any moment-to-moment changes in testosterone or cortisol levels experienced over a holiday trip won’t likely have a lasting effect on the body, Edelstein said. This is unlike chronic stress, which can damage both mental and physical health, raising blood pressure and even contributing to obesity.

Old, negative behaviour patterns are especially easy to fall into during the holidays

Family fight

If the holidays make you feel like you’re falling into old, negative behaviour patterns with family members and friends, investigate why you’re feeling how you feel and what you might do about it, psychologists told Insider.

“As they say, old habits die hard,” said David Susman, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky. “So you do have to be intentional and [plan out] how you’re going to try to be different.”

Strategies for breaking out of toxic patterns include clear communication, a change in scenery, or an offer to help others with household chores.

“You need to communicate,” Susman said. “The first time you’re bringing maybe a boyfriend or girlfriend home, it’s like, ‘OK, what are the sleeping arrangements going to be? The first time you bring the baby home it’s like, ‘OK, well, where are we going to put the little portable crib?’ There are a lot of practical details that I think have to be talked about.”

Advance planning can also help is if you know tensions are going to run high at a gathering based on how things have gone in the past.

“‘Hey, I’d love if this year we could all pitch in to clean up after dinner,'” Noulas suggests as a prompt, “Or, ‘Can we make this a no-politics discussion this year, given what happened last time?'”

Treat your hormones (and your body) right

The experts we spoke with about holiday stress each said it’s even more important than usual at these times to make sure you’re getting enough sleep and exercise, finding time to relax and unwind, and putting healthy food and drinks in your body.

Music podcast listening

If you’re travelling or preparing to spend time with others, both Noulas and Susman suggest finding relaxing sounds to surround yourself with, like some favourite music or a podcast.

“The more you’re managing your stress level and feeling calm, the easier it will be to speak to mum as your 35 year-old self, not the 5 year-old version of yourself,” Noulas said.

Once you’re at an event, getting out for a walk, journaling about your day each evening, taking a break from the action when you need it, and even calling a friend to vent if you’re feeling upset are all “soothing activities,” according to Noulas.

“If the humans are stressful, you find some animals,” Edelstein said.