Let’s just say what we all know is true: things are not “normal” right now and things won’t look remotely “normal” for months to come. The coronavirus pandemic shows no signs of slowing down as we inch toward a cold winter, and post-election stress is adding an additional layer of unrest to an already unrestful year.
Normal days are something that many took for granted before all of this. Lindsey McKernan, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said the constants in our world create a rhythm for our day and ultimately build normalcy around us. And right now, the constants that we once knew are gone.
“When things are normal … you don’t have to put as much cognitive energy into anticipating what’s next because it’s the rhythm of the day,” McKernan said. “We’re having to put so much additional cognitive effort into what’s going on throughout the day.”
This additional cognitive effort contributes to increased stress levels across society, McKernan said. Establishing a sense of normalcy can help reduce the cognitive burden of the day and allow us to feel more in control of our own days.
But how exactly can we do that right now? Below, experts offer some of their best advice for creating a sense of normalcy as we continue through this far from normal time.
1. Establish a routine for yourself.
“When we’re in a period of heightened stress, we are grounded by routine,” McKernan said.
That’s why, in “regular times,” you might feel off if you go to bed later than usual or if you skip your weekend run. This year has been one huge version of that. There are many changes altering our normal routines.
McKernan said fighting those limitations that are now part of our day-to-day lives only adds to the struggle. Instead, we should embrace our current reality so we can appropriately respond and plan.
“The first thing when thinking about establishing a routine right now is redefining what that means and accepting that our sense of normal isn’t necessarily where we want it to be ― and that’s OK. We have to work to intentionally re-establish a sense of routine,” she said.
McKernan recommended looking at four major things in order to adjust your routine: how you’re sleeping, how you’re eating, if you’re moving and to what extent you are able to socialize. Which of those areas could use some extra attention? (Maybe it’s all of them, which is understandable.) Start building your routine around those pillars.
That could look like going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. You may also want to try meal prepping as if you still needed to bring food into the office for lunch during the week. Maybe it’s calling your friend every Friday afternoon while you’re on a walk, or planning a cocktail night every weekend with your roommate. Whatever the case may be, build in small habits you can come to expect and make them something you can execute regularly.
2. Take part in rewarding activities.
In the early days of the pandemic, many of us were all about “bettering ourselves” ― whether that meant learning a new language or learning how to make sourdough. And while those activities were fun in the beginning, the practice of bread-baking and language-learning fizzled out for most. Now, we’re just trying to get through each day without losing it.
But there is something to taking on new activities as a way to create some normalcy ― as long as you’re genuinely connected to them, McKernan said.
“When you choose activities that connect to things that you value in your life, that actually gives you a sense of reward and meaning,” she said, adding that these activities could be attending a virtual spiritual service, online volunteering, cooking, reading or knitting. Choose something that gets you excited or pulls you away from your stress.
“We might not be able to capture all activities in the way that we’re used to ― for example, if you value fitness and you’re used to going to a hot yoga studio, that might not be safe to do right now,” McKernan said. “So, how can you recapture a little bit of that exercise in your life and in your day?”
These activities also lift your mood, which can be crucial as we move into winter, a time when many are faced with lower mood.
“One of the things that can happen when our mood starts to get low is that we lose the motivation to do things. And, a lot of the time, we feel like we need to magically have the motivation back in order to re-engage in things,” McKernan said. “But it can work in the opposite way, too, where if you choose … activities that are meaningful, you start to build back your sense of motivation and reward.”
3. Find creative ways to connect with loved ones.
A lot of the social aspects of our lives have been drastically altered in order to protect one another from the virus. McLean Pollock, assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University in North Carolina, noted that it’s hard to navigate how to socialize and feel close to loved ones without doing the things we’re used to, like handshaking, hugging and seeing people in person.
Pollock said that finding ways to connect with others is crucial in the search for normalcy. It will be hard to feel normal if one of our most basic needs ― social connection ― goes unmet throughout the remainder of this pandemic.
“This pandemic has led to some isolation. We can bridge that by making connections with other people because that is how we’re getting through this, together, even though it’s in a different way of being together,” she added.
But by now we’re used to scheduling Zoom calls and they can feel a little stale. Janine Dutcher, a research scientist at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, suggested finding more unique ways to connect with people. This encourages us to be creative, which can be rewarding in itself.
“I think that creativity can often be very difficult to engage in but it can be really rewarding too, because you found a way to beat the system, so to speak, and do something really fun and interesting,” she said.
Dutcher added that since the pandemic began, she has been writing loved ones letters and physically sending them in the mail. She has also conducted food exchanges with friends where she’ll order delivery dinner for a friend in another city from one of their favorite restaurants. The other friend will also return the favor for her.
4. Decorate your home for seasonal celebrations.
While we can’t control the whole world, we can control our own microcosm, specifically our own home, Pollack said.
Decorating your home for seasonal celebrations with either store-bought items or handmade décor can help create a mile-marker for time within your own life. And, conveniently, a number of ideal-for-decorating holidays are approaching.
“Our days are bleeding into one another because we don’t have variation, so having something that can distinguish this time as different from other times can be helpful in creating that sense of normalcy and creating memories,” Pollock said.
5. Plan things for the future.
Having something to look forward to adds excitement to our days. And while our plans may have to look different for a while, we still can make them — whether that means a virtual happy hour or a fun night at home with your family.
“When you have something to look forward to, each day passes a little bit faster, particularly as you get closer to it ― it’s one of those funny things about time perception. Looking forward to anything, even if it’s really simple, is very, very powerful,” Dutcher said.
Of course, this doesn’t give anyone permission to plan something that puts people at risk for contracting the virus.
“If you’re at home with family, you can plan for a fun movie night where you watch a movie, pop some popcorn and have some candy,” Dutcher suggested. She also added that, while spontaneous conversations with friends and family are nice, planned phone dates also hold their own type of power when it comes to generating some normalcy.
6. Accept that this is not a normal time.
Nothing about this period in our lives is regular. Our lives have been upended in many different ways and we are faced with uncertainty nearly every day.
“There is no magical solution, part of feeling a sense of normalcy is accepting that this is not normal and that these are really difficult and stressful times,” Pollock said. “Recognize that that’s the context of trying to create some normalcy, first of all.” (In other words, cut yourself some slack.)
She added that we are all facing different difficulties as the pandemic, the election and the rest of the year unfolds and we need to adjust our normalcy to fit our own situation.
7. If you’re still struggling, consider talking to a therapist.
Everyone’s mental health has been put through the wringer this year, and things like routine setting, socializing and planning activities may not be enough to feel “normal” ― and that is OK.
“If people are really struggling, it’s always worth reaching out to a professional to make sure that they are getting the care and support that they need,” Dutcher said.
Therapy can help you navigate our current reality and give you the coping skills to find a sense of normalcy among the chaos. Seeing a therapist can be incredibly expensive, but there are affordable resources available that may help.
If the uncertainty is stressing you out to the point where it has been severely affecting your daily life, you don’t have to manage it alone. You’re also not the only one who feels this way.
“I think a lot of people are probably experiencing a low-level or even clinical-level of depression right now. I think it is, unfortunately, very common and people should be mindful and make sure they’re taking care of their wellness.”
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Holiday Items That Are Secretly Dangerous For Pets
The holidays mark a fun occasion for people to decorate their homes, cook special dishes, exchange gifts with loved ones and otherwise appreciate the many joys life has to offer. For pet owners, however, the season brings a host of challenges and potential issues to pay attention to.
“The winter holidays are one of the best times of the year to get together and celebrate with loved ones, including our furry family members,” Dr. Jamie Richardson, head of veterinary medicine at Small Door Veterinary, told HuffPost. “But amidst all the festivities, it may be easy to miss some of the hazards our pets face during the holidays.”
This season brings increased temptations for pets and additional distraction for owners, so it’s important to be extra mindful around this time of year.
To help keep pets safe around the holidays, we asked Richardson and other experts to break down the holiday items that may pose a risk to dogs and cats. Read on for their warnings and advice for avoiding harm.
“If you have a tree at the center of your celebrations, it’s important to sweep or vacuum up the needles regularly, as they can be harmful if eaten,” Richardson said. “They can also get stuck between your pet’s paw pads and cause irritation or pain.”
If you have a pet that likes to climb or excitedly knocks into things, try to anchor your tree to a wall or window to ensure it doesn’t topple over and injure them. Wrapping the trunk in aluminum foil can discourage cats from climbing, as most don’t like the sound and texture.
“If you have a tree that needs watering, make sure there’s no access to stagnant water that your pet might try to drink from,” Richardson advised. “Bacteria grows very quickly in tree water, and can cause serious stomach upsets for your pet.”
Consider choosing a tree skirt that is tight-fitting or a stand with a covered bowl to make the water harder to access.
“To protect their tree, some pet parents will place gates in front of the tree or have it in a room their pet is not allowed to go in,” said Dr. Amber Karwacki, a partner doctor at Heart + Paw.
Letting your pet observe or investigate the tree before decorating may also remove some of the temptation.
“Use deterrents like citrus, bitter apple, menthol, or citronella spray on the tree,” suggested Dr. Sarah Wooten, a veterinary expert with Pumpkin Pet Insurance. “If your cat is a climber, do not leave them unsupervised around the tree. Reward positive behavior and distract your cat from unwanted behavior like climbing the tree.”
“Although they’re not poisonous, ornaments can have sharp edges if broken, which can cut your pet’s paws or cause punctures if eaten, so keep an eye on your pet to ensure they don’t get a hold of them,” Richardson said. “Cats are especially notorious for knocking ornaments off the tree, so ideally, you should avoid using easily breakable ornaments.”
If you must place breakable ornaments on your tree, try to hang them up on a high branch. The same goes for valuable baubles or family heirlooms you don’t want around curious mouths and noses.
“Keep ornaments out of reach of your cat so he is not tempted to swat at them,” said Dr. Kira Ramdas, president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. “Ornaments are not made of materials that can be nibbled on or ingested by your cat.”
Make sure your ornaments are securely attached to the tree — especially the heavier, sturdier ornaments, which should also go on lower branches to avoid falling on pets should they come loose.
“You can use pet deterrent spray on all your decorations, especially feathery or soft ornaments your pet might mistake for a new toy,” added Dr. Danielle Bernal, global veterinarian with Wellness Pet Company.
Electrical Cords And String Lights
“While some homes look like a scene from the movie ‘Christmas Vacation,’ light strands, loose wires, and electric cords can be a serious hazard to your pet,” said Erin Askeland, an animal health and behavior consultant at Camp Bow Wow. “Some animals may chew cords and put themselves at risk of serious burns or electric shock. Unplug indoor lights when you are not at home, and monitor your pets around cords.”
Consider purchasing cable guards or properly taping down your cords to make them less accessible to your pets, especially if you have a chew-happy puppy or kitten. Be mindful of low-hanging tree lights and try to wrap the strings closer to the inside of the tree as well.
“Try to conceal cables under rugs or tree skirts or consider using battery-powered lights and candles and plastic ornaments to minimize any danger posed to your pets by your holiday décor,” Bernal suggested.
Pay attention to signs of potential electrical burns or shock as well.
“Red, blistered, hairless skin or drooling, not eating, and holding the mouth slightly open may give owners an indication that this has occurred,” said Dr. Jacqueline Brister, veterinarian and consultant for Embrace Pet Insurance.
“While beautiful on a tree, cats in particular love tinsel’s shininess and may be tempted to nibble on it,” Richardson said. “If ingested, tinsel can easily bunch up in the stomach or wrap itself around the intestines, causing serious and potentially fatal harm to your pet.”
Consider passing on the tinsel or keeping it out of reach of your furry friends to avoid possible intestinal obstructions, and seek veterinary attention if you suspect your pet has swallowed tinsel.
“Signs of gastrointestinal tract obstruction can include sleeping more, hiding away, being sick and refusing food,” said Laura Watson, a registered veterinary nurse and cat advocacy assistant at International Cat Care. “If you think your pet has eaten a non-edible object, contact your veterinary clinic immediately for advice.”
Foreign bodies generally need to be removed surgically, so make sure you put away gift-wrapping materials as soon as you’re finished to avoid the trauma and high costs of emergency procedures.
“Dogs also like to chew wrapping paper when it is under the tree, which can cause upset stomachs and foreign bodies,” Karwacki said. “If your pet is interested in the presents, keep gifts in a closet until it is time to open them. Make sure to properly dispose of bows, ribbons, and other packaging after unwrapping gifts as they can be a hazard.”
Like tinsel, the ribbons and strings people use to wrap gifts can also pose a risk of GI obstruction for pets, particularly cats.
“The backwards-facing barbs on cats’ tongues cause them to end up swallowing stringy things even as they struggle to get them out of their mouths,” explained Dr. Jo Meyers, a practicing veterinarian with Vetster. “Even though strings are small and flexible, they have a high potential to cause a particular kind of intestinal blockage that is fatal without treatment.”
“It’s important to do your research before bringing a new plant into the home no matter what time of year,” Bernal said. “Many holiday plants, such as mistletoe and holly, are toxic to pets, particularly cats, so try to avoid fresh plants around your house unless you are confident your furry friend won’t show any interest or that the plants are in a place they definitely cannot access.”
She noted that poinsettias, cedar and pine can also be hazardous for cats and dogs. Be extra careful when it comes to lilies.
“Potted plants are a common gift for hosts, and lilies are a common choice this time of year, but even tiny doses of lily plants are potentially lethal to cats,” Meyers said. “They’re so toxic that exposure to just the pollen ― perhaps groomed off their fur after brushing up against the plant ― or drinking the water that cut flowers have been in is enough to cause permanent kidney damage.”
Pay attention if your pet has an upset stomach, vomiting, diarrhea, breathing issues, drooling, lethargy or other signs of illness around the holiday season, as plants might be to blame.
“Replacing your plants with fake silk equivalents [provides] lower risk, but can still be dangerous if ingested,” Bernal added. “Silk plants can be sprayed with pepper or bitter apple as a deterrent.”
As loved ones gather to exchange holiday gifts, pay attention to what they unwrap and consider whether it’s safe around your pets. Items that may pose a risk should be placed out of reach.
This is especially true of toys for kids, which may look like they’re meant for a dog or cat but can contain dangerous materials.
“Be mindful of any toys containing magnets,” Meyers said. “Magnets that are initially unconnected when swallowed may become attracted to each other and connect later on in the intestines. When they stick together through the intestinal wall, that tissue dies and life-threatening peritonitis is the result.”
Pay attention to the toys gifted to your pets as well.
“We all love getting our furry family members a gift for the holidays so they can join in on the festive fun,” Karwacki said. “However, the common rawhide dog bones, rawhide holiday-themed treats, and antler toys can be very dangerous to dogs. All of these are choking hazards to our furry friends.”
The holiday season is a great time to prepare special dishes and sweets for friends and family to enjoy.
‘’For those with a sweet tooth, be careful that your dog or cat doesn’t get in on the action, particularly if you’re enjoying some chocolate or peppermint,” said Love Your Dog spokesperson Sadie Cornelius. “Chocolate contains a substance called ‘theobromine’ which is toxic to dogs. Peppermint has a similar effect due to the number of different chemicals used to give it that famous minty taste. Sweets also tend to have xylitol, an artificial sweetener, which can be fatal for pets.”
Seek medical assistance if your pet consumes these treats. Other dishes don’t necessarily require a veterinarian’s help but are also best kept away from hungry cats and dogs.
“A favorable festive fruit, cranberries are completely fine for our pets when dried,” Cornelius said. ” However, too much fruit can lead to stomach pains and vomiting. We recommend fruit is less than 10% of your pet’s ration on any given day. And ham might be on most of our Christmas menus this year, but it shouldn’t be on our pets’ due to high fat, high salt, and the danger of ingesting bones.”
Fatty, salty and sugary foods can cause a host of symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea when some animals eat them.
“Don’t share any table scraps with your furry family member this holiday season, especially when it comes to dessert,” Karwacki said. “Even turkey skin can be harmful because it is high in fat. Raisins, garlic, and onions are foods that are common in holiday cooking, but they are toxic to pets.”
If you feel strongly about giving human food to your pet around the holidays, he recommended sweet potato or baby carrots. Otherwise, put your leftovers away and take out any trash filled with food scraps as soon as possible.
“Take care with lit candles or menorahs to avoid singed paws or a burned tail,” Richardson advised. “Always place them out of reach of pets, and at least 12 inches away from anything flammable in case they do accidentally get knocked over.”
Candle safety will not only help you avoid pet injury but also prevent devastating house fires.
“If you have cats that like to climb, you should try to block their access, and make sure there are no high perches nearby that they could jump from to reach the candles,” Richardson said. “Never leave your pets unsupervised whilst the candles are lit, and make sure they’re blown out before you head to bed.”
Who doesn’t love filling their home with a festive scent this time of year? As with candles, however, it’s important for pet owners to consider safety when choosing how they’ll enjoy their holiday fragrance.
“Liquid potpourris pose risks because they contain essential oils and detergents that can severely damage your pet’s mouth, eyes and skin,” said Dr. Nikko Grossapoulos, a veterinarian with Zoetis. “Solid potpourris also can also cause problems if ingested.”
Pay attention to any essential oil products you bring into the house.
“Clove oil exposure can cause irritation to the skin or mouth, including ulcers, as well as neurologic and liver disease ― e.g. seizures,” Brister said. “Exposure to eucalyptus oil can lead to throwing up, loose stool, and slowing of heart, lungs and neurological functions.”
She noted that peppermint oil, tea tree oil and pine oil can also cause serious symptoms ranging from skin and mouth irritation to vomiting and fever to seizures and a coma.
“Most of these issues are associated with heavy exposure ― for example, knocking over the bottle and lapping it up or coating a large portion of the skin ― but some degree of risk exists with any level of exposure,” Brister added.
Holiday Guests’ Medications
“Guests who bring prescription or recreational drugs often account for accidental poisonings in pets during the holidays,” Wooten said. “Keep everything locked up and advise your guests to do the same.”
Drugs and alcohol can lead to severe toxicosis if dogs and cats ingest them.
“Their body size puts them at risk for higher exposure compared to that of an adult-sized person,” Brister said. “This is especially important for vape pens or gummies, in which a small animal can ingest an extremely large dose in a short period of time accidentally. Enlarged pupils, unsteadiness, twitching, sensitivity to lights and sounds, unexpected aggression, stupor, and urinating excessively can be signs a pet was exposed to drugs or alcohol.”
Paying attention to unusual symptoms and behavior in pets is a great way to avoid holiday mishaps, as is separating your furry friend from items that can pose a risk to their health and safety. Make sure you know the best way to reach emergency veterinary assistance and have your pet’s medical history and important documents on hand.
“The best way to avoid issues is to keep hazards out of reach, which is easier said than done in most households during the holidays due to all the chaos associated with visitors and other plans,” Meyers noted. “Vigilance is key, along with keeping pets confined to pet-safe areas.”
The Holiday Tasks That Are Secretly Depleting You
As merry as it may be, the holiday season can also be synonymous with stress. Between spending lots of money on gifts, living up to the (probably very high) expectations in your head and making time for all of the holiday events throughout the month, it’s an overwhelming season for many people.
But you’re definitely not the only one feeling this way. In fact, there are two concepts that may explain the stress you may feel at points throughout this season: A heavy mental load and excess emotional labor.
Mental load can also be called the invisible load, or cognitive labor, said Joey Trine, a licensed clinical professional counselor with Thriveworks Counseling and Psychiatry Aurora in Illinois. It captures the things you manage every day but are not writing down and checking off your to-do list. However, you’re still putting energy toward the tasks. Think: remembering to buy cookie dough for your kids’ holiday bake sale or noting that your in-laws want a certain type of gift this year.
The mental load is “basically the entire thought process that goes behind a task or behind a situation,” added Aparna Sagaram, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Space to Reflect in Philadelphia, a mental health group practice that specializes in culturally sensitive services for individuals, couples and families.
Generally, the mental load often falls on one person in a relationship or in a family. (And that person in heterosexual relationships typically is the woman — though things are slowly changing, Sagaram noted.)
Emotional labor, on the other hand, is the emotional work that goes into different relationships, Sagaram said. This could look like listening to a friend when they’re upset, or managing a tough dynamic between family members.
While different, the two concepts can feed into each other or pile onto each other. Sagaram added that emotional labor — like allowing a loved one to emotionally dump on you — can eventually turn into a mental load as you continue to care for that person, just on a different, more tangible level (like taking stress off them by picking up more wrapping paper).
So, if you’re feeling a little off this holiday season, it may be the stress of both of these concepts. Here are the tasks that are likely adding to it, plus how you can cope:
Shopping for gifts adds to your mental load.
According to Sagaram, gifts take a big toll on your mental load during the holiday season. Whether you’re figuring out what to get your kids for Christmas (and hiding and wrapping the presents, if they believe in Santa Claus), deciding what to buy for your parents or picking out a gift for a work exchange, it’s exhausting to do the shopping, the planning, the wrapping and the actual gift giving.
“I think the holiday season itself brings on a lot of stress because people are trying to figure out what gifts they can give to people or how to be thoughtful,” Sagaram said. “And there’s a lot of thought process that goes behind that.”
She added that for the person carrying the mental load in a household, this task can feel pretty isolating, too, as you figure out how to make this holiday magic happen.
Arranging holiday travel.
If you’re someone who travels to family gatherings, the seemingly simple act of planning transportation adds to your mental load, according to Sagaram. Mapping out how you’re going to get somewhere and when you’re going to leave requires research and lots of thought.
Not to mention there’s also the preparation: You have to pack your bags, pack up gifts, organize any tickets that are necessary for travel or make sure the car is in tiptop shape for a drive — it’s a lot to think about. And for the person carrying the mental load, it falls on them to make sure this is all handled.
Keeping track of increased social engagements.
The most festive time of the year is a time when holiday parties run rampant, adding more to keep track of for the person who carries the mental load.
Trine noted that it’s a time when your schedule probably looks pretty different than normal, so there are more social events to manage. This could involve dropping your kids off at holiday events or keeping track of the different dress codes for upcoming events.
You’ll deal with even more stress if you carry the mental load in your household and are hosting a holiday engagement, not just attending one.
In general, you’ll be asked to do more and more during the holidays, too.
Trine noted that if you’re a part of an organization like a volunteer community or a neighborhood sports league (or if your child or partner is part of a group), you’ll likely be met with more tasks around the holiday season, too. This further adds to the mental load.
“It’s a time of year when a lot of people ask for help and people feel obligated” to help out, Trine said.
This could mean helping out with a cookie drive, donating money to an organization or hosting a holiday brunch for your group. While all are worthwhile, when you already feel like you can’t handle more, it can be hard to take on this added responsibility.
And you may have to deal with uncomfortable family or friend dynamics.
Since your connection with loved ones is purely built on relationships, it falls into the category of emotional labor, which is a very real stressor for many people throughout the season (and all year).
According to Michele Tugade, professor of Psychological Science on the William R. Kenan, Jr. Chair at Vassar College, “holiday celebrations that require bringing families and friends together,” are a major contributor to emotional labor. So, all of those Christmas dinner parties or cookie-making events can take a toll.
The holiday season is a time of heightened social connection, which Tugade said can lead to emotional fatigue at work and feelings of burnout. What’s more, it can lead to problems that make it hard to enjoy the season.
“Too much emotional labor is costly to an individual. Research shows that it is related to greater levels of depression and anxiety, and heightened burnout,” Tugade said.
This can be especially true if you’re the one who everyone turns to when there’s family drama. You may feel like you need to problem-solve or manage other people’s emotions, so, by the time you’re finished helping someone else, you’re too exhausted to be present at the family gathering, Sagaram added.
People in the service industry likely deal with even more emotional labor.
Dealing with unhappy (and often rude) customers is an unfortunate reality for folks in the service industry. During the holiday shopping and dining season, it’s likely that they’ll be dealing with this more often.
In this sense, Tugade described emotional labor as “a type of performance, in a way, like ‘keeping your cool’ in the midst of escalating stress so as to get the job done.”
So, for example, a flight attendant facing a difficult customer during a busy holiday travel day may just have to smile and move on instead of showing their true emotions. “It can be cognitively and emotionally exhausting to continuously exert emotional labor,” Tugade added.
Remember that this is on top of all of your other daily tasks.
The person who carries the mental load doesn’t just get a break from their other tasks when the holiday season starts, and the same goes for people who have to listen to emotion-driven family or friend issues.
Instead, these issues build on the additional tasks and stressors that come with the holiday season, according to Sagaram.
So, if you’re the person who regularly refills the toiletries, you will probably still be that person as you also shop for holiday gifts, which further adds to the stress of the season.
To help with these feelings, take time for yourself throughout the month.
“I think we can tend to put ourselves aside more during this time,” Trine said. If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, set some boundaries (like say no to a Christmas party you don’t want to go to) or let yourself be 10 minutes late for a social engagement if you need that extra 10 minutes just to breathe.
“Those are good things to have in your back pocket as you’re balancing the increase of mental load and emotional [labor] that comes along with the holidays,” she said.
If you carry the mental load, delegate some tasks this holiday season.
It’s not a good feeling to realize you’re the one who carries the mental load (especially as we head full-steam ahead into the holidays). But, Sagaram said you can talk to your partner to help alleviate some of the holiday mental load stress.
“If you are in a relationship, it’s really helpful to sit down with your partner and literally write out all of the tasks that need to get done,” she said.
She recommends that you create two separate lists — one for daily living and one specifically for the holiday season. Then, delegate tasks to your partner that they need to take on this holiday season.
Sagaram added that you should give your partner tasks (and you should take on tasks) that they’ll actually do, so you don’t have to spend time reminding them to complete their to-do list. It’s also important to actually give up the tasks you delegate (so, don’t check in over and over again) ― and it’s important for your partner to take them on fully.
This is short-term crisis management, Sagaram added, we’re fully in the holiday season so it’s necessary to immediately take some of the stress off. After the holiday season, you should have a larger conversation with your partner about alleviating your mental load outside of the holidays, too.
How Your Christmas Tree Impacts Your Home’s Air Quality
Few things are more Christmassy than the smell of pine and fir, which is often the happy result of buying a real Christmas tree. For many, the smell is a true sign of the season. For others, it can be irritating — which is why some people opt for artificial trees as an alternative.
Either way, putting up your festive Christmas tree may tinker with your home’s air quality, according to experts.
Dustin Poppendieck, an environmental engineer in the indoor air quality and ventilation group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said that both real and artificial trees can emit chemicals for weeks, a month or even beyond (for artificial trees that are stored in your home all year). And while it’s likely nothing to be overly alarmed about, it’s still worth knowing what’s going down when you’re putting your tree up.
While there isn’t too much research on exactly how much emission both kinds of trees actually create, Poppendieck said there is adjacent research that can inform just what might be happening to our home’s air when these trees are brought inside. Here’s how both real and artificial Christmas trees impact your home’s air:
Real Christmas trees emit a mix of volatile organic compounds.
The pleasant pine scent that your Christmas tree gives off is actually due to a release of a mix of different volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, according to Bryan Cummings, a research scientist in Drexel University’s College of Engineering. Specifically, most of these compounds are known as pinenes and they are what gives the Christmas tree its distinct odor; the same goes for products like pine-scented floor cleaners.
For some people, VOCs can cause minor respiratory irritation when inhaled, he added. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs can cause irritation to your eyes, nose and throat, and can also cause headaches.
While these side effects may be seen in some people, Cummings does not think VOCs from a Christmas tree will have a large impact on the general public’s health either short-term or long-term when compared to all of the items that release VOCs all throughout the year. But, he added that people who are sensitive to irritants of this nature — like people with asthma or certain allergies — may feel extra irritation when they have a Christmas tree in their home.
With a real Christmas tree, you’re also bringing in potential mold and other outdoor contaminants.
Beyond the chemical reaction a real tree could have on the air in your home, “when you’re bringing a tree, you’re bringing in a microbial community in addition to the tree,” Poppendieck said.
In other words, that tree could be offcasting irritants that could potentially trigger asthma or allergies, he added. These irritants can include mold and pollen, according to IQ Air, an air quality group based in Switzerland.
Additionally, Poppendieck noted that any spills when watering a real tree could lead to mold growth, too. Or, if your tree has mud on it, the mud may have additional irritants that can permeate the air.
As for artificial trees, the plastics used to create them may also impact your home’s air.
While many people with severe allergies turn to fake Christmas trees for their holiday cheer, Cummings said these trees, too, may make a mark on your home’s air quality.
“These artificial trees, they contain plastics and PVCs [polyvinyl chloride], and one of the major plasticizers in these materials are phthalates,” Cummings said. Additionally, he said that artificial trees also contain flame retardants.
When it comes to flame retardants, “some of the compounds might be neurotoxins or carcinogens with long-term exposure,” he said.
And when it comes to phthalates, “those are thought to be mostly endocrine disruptors,” which are chemicals that could interfere with your body’s hormones. “There’s lots of research going on in the indoor air quality community especially around phthalates because they’re one of those forever chemicals,” he added. Forever chemicals are manmade chemicals that don’t break down, and as a result, stick around for hundreds and hundreds of years.
What’s more, while they can evaporate into a home’s air, which means you can breathe them in, they can also stick to your hands or other products, giving them the ability to be ingested further and can even go directly into your bloodstream after skin contact, Cummings noted.
“I say that’s a bigger health concern than potential exposure to pine-scented terpenes,” he said.
All of that said, your artificial tree isn’t the only contributing factor when it comes to plastic contamination.
“I also want to say: How many other plastic products do you bring into your home?” Cummings said. Between plastic water bottles, plastic appliances, plastic toys and plastic decor — the answer is probably a lot.
“Are the artificial trees the major source of this pollution? Probably not,” Cummings said.
Additionally, Poppendieck pointed out that “phthalates are commonly found in house dust” beyond the Christmas season. So, no matter what plastics you’re bringing in, the same pollution pattern is happening.
“We know it’s moving from the plastics in our home to the dust,” Poppendieck said.
If you are someone who is very concerned about phthalates and plastics in general, you should avoid artificial trees, Cummings noted. But, if you have many other plastic items in your home, one Christmas tree is not going to change anything.
This is not a cause for panic. Both experts still have Christmas trees.
While both experts said they limit (or do not use) scented home products like scented detergents, body soap and cleaning items, they both have Christmas trees in their homes.
“There’s an emotional attachment that I grew up with,” Poppendieck said, “I like the smell, I like the ambiance and the psychological value.”
He added that when it comes to any indoor air quality topic, you have to balance the physical health impacts with the psychological impact. If your Christmas tree brings you joy, you should not stop getting one to protect your home’s air quality (unless you are one of the few people who deal with severe respiratory reactions) if your home is full of other air quality risk factors, too.
Both experts added that there are many other things in our homes — other plastic items, scented cleaners, candles and gas stoves — that also impact the air we breathe.
There is not enough research to know exactly how much Christmas trees affect our home’s air quality, but Poppendieck said he would be surprised if Christmas trees were a huge risk and would also be surprised if there was zero risk.
If you want to better your indoor air quality, there are things you can do.
Cummings said you should always follow indoor air quality best practices, whether you are bringing a tree in or taking one out.
“So, things I always like to do — clean with soap and water instead of harsh chemicals whenever possible, limit the use of scented products [and] you can always open a window to clear out some of these indoor pollutants,” he said.
You can also use HEPA filters in your home, which “clear out indoor particles and dust,” Cummings noted.
Poppendieck added if you’re really concerned about emissions from either a real or artificial tree, you can set the tree up outside or in a garage before bringing it into your home. This will help lessen the initial indoor emission. But, this step is probably only necessary for those who’ve had historical reactions to trees, he said. It isn’t necessary for the average person.
Beyond air quality issues, remember real Christmas trees are a fire hazard.
“Whenever we talk about indoor air quality, we need to talk about relative risk and how dangerous is a Christmas tree compared to the other things that we do,” Poppendieck said.
He stressed that real Christmas trees have the potential to burn. It’s crucial that you keep your tree watered and remove it from your house if it dies.
This will help reduce the risk of fire when it comes to your real tree, which, Poppendieck said, far outweighs any indoor air quality issues.
Feeling Drained? You’re Probably Dealing With ‘Energy Leakage.’ Here’s What To Know.
When thinking about the ways you spend your energy, what comes to mind are likely the things that are commonly known as “draining” — work, commuting, running errands, the list goes on.
But there are smaller, everyday moments that can be just as depleting. Those are what Melissa Urban, the co-founder and CEO of Whole30 and New York Times bestselling author of “The Book of Boundaries: Set the Limits That Will Set You Free,” calls “energy leakages.”
According to Urban, energy leakage — while not a clinical phrase — is “the invisible ways that we spend energy throughout the day that leaves us feeling drained.”
She noted that “every interaction you have, whether you’re meeting your mom for lunch or replying to a social media comment … is an energetic exchange and sometimes those exchanges can leave you feeling really invigorated and positive and restored … but, in other times … you just feel depleted, you feel anxious, you feel overwhelmed, you feel frustrated.”
In other words, interactions that result in energy leakage are those interactions that consume “more energy than they’re giving back,” Urban said.
So, if you are dealing with a friend who always treats you like a therapist or are getting upset when scrolling through photos of an ex, you may be dealing with energy leakage.
Here are some unexpected ways you’re draining your energy and what to do about it.
Your phone and social media are huge sources of energy leakage.
According to Urban, your phone and social media are major culprits of energy leakage. “It feels effortless to just lie in bed and scroll and post or leave a comment or follow comments down the rabbit hole,” she said but “that is an energetic exchange.”
And, most of the time, you are not getting any energy back after looking at social media — especially when you’re comparing your life to someone else’s on Instagram, checking a toxic social media account or reading hateful comments.
Think about it: Do you ever feel better after social media stalking? Probably not.
Kids can be draining, too.
As wonderful as they are, kids can be a reason for energy leakage, too, Urban said.
“Kids are needy, they need things all the time, and they don’t have the processing for you to be like, ‘Dude, I need a minute,’” she said.
When kids need something, they need something. And that’s OK (you can’t exactly tell a 4-year-old to make their own dinner), but there are ways you may be adding to this energy leak.
You may be expending extra energy on your child (like many parents can’t help but do) — for example, frequently checking in with your child when they’re quietly playing, or asking if they need a snack or water when they’re content, Urban noted. In the end, you’re putting more pressure on yourself in this moment when, really, your child is just fine.
Beyond kids, specific people in your life can be ‘energy vampires.’
“I think everyone knows what it feels like to leave a conversation with that person who is an ‘energy vampire,’” Urban said. “You just feel like they sucked all the life out of you.”
These could be colleagues who constantly complain to you about work or family members who need a lot of support (but don’t give any support back).
There’s probably someone in your life who fits the “energy vampire” mold; signs include leaving an interaction completely depleted or exhausted.
Urban noted that this can be especially tough for those who have people-pleasing tendencies. You may feel like it’s extra hard to deal with energy vampires because they just take and take and take.
Staying angry about things that should be left in the past is another culprit.
How many times have you been cut off in traffic and let it ruin your entire afternoon?
This, Urban said, is another major driver of energy leakage: “That’s energy you are spending on something that isn’t even real anymore” — it happened in the past.
The same goes for holding grudges along with anything that puts our energy in the past or future, she noted, so things like rehearsing disaster and negative self-talk, too.
Energy leakage is related to a feeling of mindlessness.
Alayna L. Park, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, told HuffPost that the concept of energy leakage reminds her of mindlessness — the opposite of the popular practice known as mindfulness, which she defined as “paying attention to the present moment.”
Mindlessness is what Park describes as going on autopilot.
“Going on autopilot isn’t always going to drain your energy,” but a lot of the reasons we experience energy leakage — checking our phones, scrolling social media, agreeing to an event you don’t want to attend — happen because our minds are on autopilot, she added.
“We’re just kind of going through our day without always having an intention in mind,” Park said, and that can be particularly damaging when it comes to activities that exhaust you.
There are ways to help combat this feeling.
“If you know you’re about to do something that’s draining, [give] yourself a small reward afterward,” Park said. This way, you’ll have something to look forward to during a draining activity or interaction.
The reward doesn’t have to be huge. It can be something simple like going for a short walk after a meeting with someone who drains your energy or rewarding yourself with a piece of chocolate after going through a situation that led to a feeling of energy leakage.
Park also suggested setting a timer for activities that lead to energy leakage. For example, if you want to scroll social media but know it depletes your energy, you can set a time limit so you won’t just be endlessly scrolling.
Or, if there’s someone in your life who depletes your energy (and you still have to see them … like a colleague, for example) you can limit your meetings with this person to 30 minutes and remind yourself that “I can do anything for 30 minutes, even if it’s unpleasant,” Park added.
But, how much time you need to restore your energy will vary.
Urban said it’s important to know where you draw your energy from — if you’re introverted (meaning you recharge from time alone) or extroverted (you gain energy from spending time with other people) — in terms of handling your energy leakage.
If you don’t know if you’re an introvert or extrovert, “you can use Susan Cain’s super simple introvert-extrovert model,” to determine how you get your energy, Urban added.
“If you’re extroverted where being around other people makes you feel energized, you might need less quiet or alone time to restore energy leakage,” Urban said, “and you might want to choose to spend time specifically with the people who you know make you feel energized.”
For those who are introverted, you will likely need a lot more alone time to restore your energy, she noted.
Keep track of what makes you feel this way.
You may not know exactly what drains your energy, and that’s OK, Park said. If you notice you are dealing with this feeling of energy leakage at the end of every day, make a point to take note of your actions in the days to come.
To decipher what is making you feel this way, pay attention to your actions, emotions and physical sensation, she said.
When it comes to emotions, when we are on the path to feeling drained, “we might notice we’re a little more irritable than usual, or down or anxious,” Park said. Additionally, you may notice that your heart is racing or your face feels hot, she said.
Another major sign? If you’re going about your day and not doing necessary self-care tasks like working out or keeping your home in order, you may be dealing with energy leakage, too.
If any of this rings true, take a step back and think about the tasks or interactions in the day that could have led to this moment.
“An issue I see a lot it almost seems like this all or nothing — you’re fine and then you notice, ‘Oh, I’m really drained right now,’” Park said, “It can be helpful to catch before you hit the ‘I’m completely drained right now.’”
It’s important to set boundaries.
“Setting boundaries is a huge and important factor in energy leakage — you want to set boundaries with friends, family members, co-workers or co-parents who are overstepping your capacity,” Urban said.
This can include telling someone that certain topics are off-limits, that you don’t want to take part in gossip or that you will leave a conversation if it turns mean.
Boundaries look different for everyone and should address the need that your energy leakage is trying to show you — so if something makes you feel drained or anxious, you probably need to establish some boundaries.
While boundary-setting can be tough, setting boundaries is “immediately going to allow you to reclaim some of that energy,” Urban said.
How Sleep Experts Get Through The Day When They’re Sleep-Deprived
If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter or spent the night tossing and turning, you know how awful it can feel to be sleep-deprived.
Your body might ache, you may struggle to pay attention and your mood will most likely take a hit. This is because sleep is linked to nearly every important bodily function — it affects our immune system and our appetite, our stress hormones and our metabolism, our blood pressure and our cardiovascular system. Even a single night of poor sleep can trigger a wide range of health effects (which is why you may feel so crummy after that late night out).
Most of us need between seven and eight hours of sleep a night to feel alert and healthy the next day. But for whatever reason, that’s not always possible. In fact, a study recently published in JAMA Network Open found that nearly half of Americans are sleep-deprived on a regular basis.
The best way to combat sleep deprivation is ― well, to sleep. There’s really no quick fix, but there are a handful of tips and tricks that can make the day more bearable. We asked a few sleep specialists to share how they cope when they’re sleep-deprived. Here’s what they said.
Don’t stress about it
This is easier said than done, but it’s helpful not to get fixated on the fact that you’re sleep-deprived.
When Fiona Barwick, the director of the sleep and circadian health program at Stanford Health Care, is low on sleep, she reminds herself not to worry about it because she knows her body will do what it takes to get back on track.
Our sleep drive is a self-correcting system that naturally tries to keep the sleep-wake cycle in balance. “If we don’t sleep well one night, we’ll sleep better the next night. If we worry about it, however, our sleep will be worse,” Barwick said.
Expose yourself to light
Barwick also makes a point to expose herself to some bright light first thing in the morning. Our sleep-wake cycle is heavily dependent on light — daylight sends a signal to our brain that it’s time to get up and be active, while darkness sends the cue that it’s almost time to go to bed.
Exposing yourself to light when you first wake up “suppresses melatonin, which increases alertness and boosts mood,” Barwick said. It’ll also help keep your circadian rhythm in check, which should help you sleep more soundly at night.
Have some caffeine (but not too much)
It might seem obvious, but yes: Coffee helps. This is because caffeine blocks adenosine, a chemical in our body that increases the need for sleep. As a result, caffeine makes us feel less sleepy and improves learning and decision-making if you’re sleep-deprived, according to Dr. Andrey Zinchuk, a sleep medicine doctor with Yale Medicine.
But while it may be tempting to keep refilling your mug, it’s important to be mindful of how much caffeine you consume.
“I don’t have too much caffeine, as I want to avoid the crash that occurs when its alerting effects eventually subside,” Barwick said.
Dr. Wissam Chatila, a pulmonologist at Temple Lung Center and professor of thoracic medicine and surgery at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, advises against having that late-afternoon cup of coffee.
“If taken at the wrong time — e.g. late in evening — then they will interfere with sleep later on,” he said.
Take a catnap
If you’re able to squeeze in a 30- to 60-minute catnap, go for it. A short nap can improve alertness, sleepiness, memory and exercise capacity.
On the flip side, a lengthier midday snooze can actually impair cognitive function, Chatila said, and potentially make it even harder to complete tasks. Make sure to set an alarm so you don’t overdo it.
“I keep the nap relatively short so that I don’t use up too much sleep drive, as I want to save most of it for the coming night,” Barwick said.
If you’re not a napper, even getting some deep rest can be beneficial, Barwick said. Ten to 30 minutes of yoga nidra, a meditative yoga practice that involves deep relaxation, can help you feel refreshed and more attentive.
Go for a walk
Plus, it can build up your sleep drive, which should help you doze off at night.
“That helps to further ensure I will get better sleep the coming night,” Barwick said.
Know that your body is resilient
Lastly, don’t beat yourself up. Our bodies are incredibly resilient, which is why we’re still able to function even when we’re sleep-deprived. (Think about all you’ve been able to accomplish on those days when you didn’t get enough sleep.)
Don’t assume the day will be a wash just because you didn’t get the sleep you needed, Barwick said. Go easy on yourself, and listen to your body.
“I don’t cut back on what I planned to do, but I also don’t beat myself up if I get less done than I wanted,” she said.
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