You’ve likely heard the line, “suicides spike around the holidays.”
The truth is, November and December see the fewest suicides year-round.
There are a few reasons this myth of more suicides exists…
First, there’s the ubiquitous showing of the film It’s a Wonderful Life, where the main character contemplates suicide just before Christmas. But another contributor is one we can’t ignore – although suicide rates lower during the holidays, depression does increase.
Depression rates rise around the winter holidays for a simple reason – stress. Demands for spending money on gifts, traveling, and spending time with family all take a toll on our mental health.
What’s more, December, January, and February do have the highest rates of death by all causes. We’ve written before that we believe the underlying factor is stress. When the holidays come around, we do too much, travel too much, spend too much, and – for some folks – log too many hours with our families.
Demands for spending money on gifts, traveling, and spending time withfamily all take a toll on our mental health.
Clearly, the increased mortality includes other factors… We eat and drink a little too much, and hospitals during holidays often face staffing shortages. For that matter, the time change ending daylight saving time kicks off this season of stress by disrupting our sleep patterns. (Another great example of government do-gooders fixing something that ain’t broke.)
Stress lays the groundwork for a deadly chain reaction in our bodies. And we know that pervasive, unchecked stress leads to depression.
So over the coming weeks, we urge you to take a break and manage your stress levels. Boosting the happiness chemicals in your brain, for example, will not only lower stress, but reduce pain and lower our risk for heart attacks. Happiness also boosts your immune system – just in time for cold and flu season.
It does work. The act of smiling stimulates muscles in our faces.
There are plenty of ways to lower stress by boosting your happiness. The key is to tap into your hormones. Four neurotransmitters all work to lower stress and increase contentment…
Serotonin is primarily a mood regulator, but about 90% of serotonin originates in your gut, not your brain.
Dopamine is the “reward and reinforcement” chemical. It’s also involved in movement.
Endorphins kick in when you’re stressed. They help motivate and energize you and mask pain if you need to push through something.
Oxytocin helps us feel close to people and form personal relationships. It also acts as an anti-inflammatory.
Here are three simple ways to increase these feel-good chemicals:
1. Stop everything and take a deep breath. Deep breathing using your diaphragm muscle helps calm you down. That’s because your diaphragm connects to your amygdala. The amygdala is a walnut-shaped tissue I’ve written about many times. It’s the “fear” center of your brain. It sets off our “fight or flight” response and triggers release of hormones like dopamine to deal with stress.
But deep breathing helps calm the amygdala. It also triggers the vagus nerve. This important nerve cluster sets off the parasympathetic nervous system and controls a lot of activities associated with rest. It relaxes your blood vessels, lowers our heart rate, and relaxes our muscles and lungs.
What’s more, deep breaths also release endorphins. And the vagus nerve, when stimulated, also releases oxytocin.
2. Smile more. It sounds too simple to work, and it even gets me a few laughs when I tell folks about it. But it does work. The act of smiling stimulates muscles in your face. These muscles then send a rush of blood flow to the frontal lobe of the brain, which in turn makes hormones like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins.
Laughter, as well, releases these important neurotransmitters. Laughing releases nitric oxide (NO), which lowers blood pressure and reduces stress. It also boosts your immune system. In one study out of Indiana State University that looked at cancer patients, those who watched a humorous video saw boosts in their immune cells. Specifically, their natural killer cells were more active. That’s great news, since these cells fight diseases, including cancer.
3. Meditate. I’ve written so many times about the benefits of meditation. It’s a simple exercise that anyone in any medical condition can do.
Meditation lowers stress levels by boosting serotonin and dopamine levels. It calms activity in the amygdala. And meditation also activates that vagus nerve. That means you’ll feel surges of oxytocin as well.
I hope these tips will help you de-stress this busy holiday season and keep depression at bay.
Dr. David Eifrig worked in arbitrage and trading groups with major Wall Street investment banks, including Goldman Sachs, Chase Manhattan, and Yamaichi in Japan. In 1995, Dr. Eifrig retired from Wall Street, went to UNC-Chapel Hill medical school, and became an ophthalmologist.
Today, he publishes a 100% free daily e-letter on both health and wealth that shows readers how to live a millionaire lifestyle for far, far less.