It Sounds, Smells, and Feels like December!

Oh, we love the sights, sounds, and smells of the holidays! Like the natural changes that distinguish New England’s four seasons, we eagerly anticipate favorite songs, familiar scents, and reconnections with old friends and family. There are family traditions, foods, and serving dishes that appear only for the holidays; decorations and numerous personal items that drive our nostalgia meters bonkers. Yet, as much as we share in this seasonal smorgasbord of life and renewal, each item evokes different memories and reactions for every individual, as well as stoking our personal emotional furnaces.

Scent and sound are especially powerful catalysts that help us travel back in time, at least figuratively. Fresh pine, cinnamon, mulled cider, candles, cookies and desserts…these all transport us to holidays past, possibly to our parents’ or grandparents’ kitchens, maybe to amily — now es long goneto holidays past, possibly to our grandparents’ies, each of us  appear only for the holidays, decorativisit family now long gone. That’s the double-edged sword nostalgia offers; we remember the good and the not-so-good, but it’s all valuable in helping to maintain our emotional health and reduce stress, and can revitalize us through hope, renewed friendships, and overall optimism.

Psychologist Krystine Batcho, PhD, is a professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and an expert on nostalgia. Her research finds that people who are prone to nostalgia excel at maintaining personal relationships and choose healthy social ways of coping with their troubles. According to Batcho, nostalgia can be associated with a number of psychological benefits. Nostalgic reminiscence, for example, helps a person maintain a sense of continuity despite the constant flow of change over time.

“It is reassuring,” Batcho explains, “to realize how rich our lives have been — how much joy, hard work, success and excitement we have experienced. During difficult times, attention to our past can strengthen us by reminding us of how we survived challenges, loss, injury, failure or misfortune. When we are sad or discouraged, it can be uplifting to remember that we are still the person who had been happy, strong and productive at times in our past.”

Research has shown that our sense of who we are is closely related to how we see ourselves in relation to others. Nostalgia, Batcho stresses, can help a person cope with loneliness by enhancing the sense of social support that comes from knowing that each of us is someone’s daughter or son, mother or father, sister or brother. Nostalgic memories can help someone who is away from home or someone who is mourning the death of a family member by reminding us that the bonds we share with those we love survive physical separation.

Giving back at the holidays, through toy, food and clothing drives, volunteerism and donations also is linked to nostalgia, and has the added benefit of producing a euphoric response known in psychological circles as “giver’s high, which is the result of our bodies’ responding emotionally to our personal goodwill and gestures by producing endorphins, which make us feel good.

Additionally, like scent, music is especially evocative of emotion. Nostalgic song lyrics engage the listener in reverie and capture the bittersweet feeling of years past. “Songs focus us on how the passage of time inevitably brings change, or may remind us of our mistakes and painful aspects of life,” says Batcho. “But the distinctive bittersweet affect of nostalgia also can transform the sense of loss into a positive appreciation of how much we have enjoyed, how much we have survived and, most importantly, how much we have loved and have been loved.”

Nostalgia, Batcho concludes, engages us in reflection on who we once were and how we have arrived at our present selves. Whether secular or religious, shared traditions renew our sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. By reminding us of events, customs, beliefs or rituals, holiday sounds, sights and scents can help us feel connected to others, even during times of stress or loneliness.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Building Your Personal Wellness Plan

As the new year rapidly approaches, you’re probably looking at your holiday party calendar, deciding to cast caution to the winds for a few more weeks, and promising yourself that, come January, you’ll settle down and focus more on your health and wellness. Rationalizing and procrastinating are normal human reactions, and while a little guilt may accompany your reverie, don’t feel too bad if, in fact, you’ll keep that commitment to yourself to set a healthier course in 2013.

An important step in achieving that goal is to develop a personal wellness plan — and keep it where it’s always handy. Developing your wellness plan will require that you honestly assess your current health status, meaning that you become more conscious of your daily choices and the impact they have on your overall health. Next, you visualize what you’d like to change, improve or keep the same, over the short term and over the longer term. You should set action items that reflect your goals, and then adopt measurements for seeing how you’re doing.

Your personal wellness plan should take into consideration your health goal, your daily activities, your diet, and your own reward choices. Having a plan to follow helps you remain focused on your goals, and will allow you to more accurately track your progress.  Good intentions can be quickly forgotten if they are not well researched, planned out and then written down.

Long-term wellness plans are personal plans that will focus on your daily health for six months or more. These plans will only change as your health changes or they may change based on new medical research or the results of your lab tests and annual checkups.  A short-term wellness plan would be one that targets a specific medical problem or issue. For example, a short-term plan would be used to lower cholesterol and then a long-term plan would be created to maintain your cholesterol once you have lowered it. Short-term and long-term wellness plans should be used together for overall personal health care planning.

Setting goals and executing your plan

Developing a health goal is critical. Are you at risk for cancer or other chronic illnesses based on family history or your own behavior? Are you thinking of trying to start a family in the near future? Do you tend to get sick a lot or suffer from stress, asthma or other conditions? Do you want to lose weight, stop smoking, cut back on caffeine, salt or alcohol, or generally improve your diet? If you have seasonal allergies, for example, you could develop a plan to help your body fight the allergies. A short-term wellness plan may even have a goal of dropping 10 pounds before a wedding that is four months away. But a longer-term plan will set milestones for losing a certain amount of weight, and for keeping it off.

Next you create wellness steps that will help you reach your goal. This part of your plan can be developed with your doctor, fitness expert, or nutritionist especially if you have a medical condition. Some things that it should include are:

  • Recipes for meals and snacks that will help you reach your goal
  • Exercise regimens and recreation and fitness ideas
  • Herbs, supplements or medicines for your symptoms, or for prevention
  • Stress-reduction techniques
  • An emotional health component through friendships, charitable giving, volunteerism, “you time” or other actions that make you feel good
  • Rewards that you will give yourself for staying on the plan

It is easier to maintain a health program if you build in rewards. This is especially important if you have had difficulty staying on a diet or exercise program in the past. The rewards should be smaller and more frequent in the beginning with a continuous buildup toward a big reward once major goals are reached.  A special vacation might be an ultimate reward.  New clothes, jewelry or other luxury items might be intermediate rewards. But you don’t get a reward unless you complete the plan and reach the goals you set for yourself. Of course, that would be its own reward, but it’s your health and wellness — work steady and hard, and then enjoy yourself!

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Put Down the Remote and Your Phone and Visit a Friend!

Holiday chaos getting to you?  Too much to do, too many places to be, people to see, cookies to eat?  Maybe you’re just not ready to hear Jingle Bells 20 times a day yet. Or the extra traffic, rushing around, and crowds are wearing you out. Well, if you’re feeling pressured, guilty or resentful, you’re not alone — for “the happiest time of the year,” December can be pretty darn stressful.

For some people it’s an abundance of friends and family coming out of the woodwork that has them down. In contrast, you may be alone, not have your family or friends nearby, and feel isolated. The holidays are very nostalgic, but for every good memory there also may be memories of family members and friends now deceased or living far away, and traditions no longer possible.

Spending time with difficult family members, grieving the loss of a loved one, feeling pressure to give gifts when finances are tight, and loneliness can leave people feeling sad, angry, or even depressed. And these feelings are aggravated by the shorter, colder days and reduced sunlight, which can trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a psychological state that literally changes your biology and can cause or add to depression.

But psychologists point out that there is a difference between the holiday blues, which are often temporary and go away once the season ends, and more serious conditions such as depression, SAD, and anxiety disorders. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), depression occurs when feelings of extreme sadness or despair last for at least two weeks or longer and when they interfere with activities of daily living such as working or even eating and sleeping. Depressed individuals tend to feel helpless, and hopeless about changing their situation.

If the holiday blues seem to linger or become more intense, people may want to seek help from a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, who can help determine if someone has depression and how best to treat it. The APA also cautions about the risks of turning to alcohol for comfort. Although it may seem to bring temporary relief, it is actually a central nervous system depressant and a diuretic. Alcohol use affects balance, increases the risk for falls, may not interact well with medications, and disrupts sleep, which has a number of health consequences. 

Take charge, and get out of the house

As the seasonal maelstrom rages around us, there are a number of steps we can take to reduce stress and depression, and to lift our spirits. To start, it’s always beneficial to try and continue our normal routines to help feel like we’re still in control. We can consciously try to not over-eat and make time for exercise and rest.

Additionally, personal outreach, especially socializing and connecting with old friends and associates is important for our emotional health. Today’s electronic world often allows us instantaneous messaging and the ability to “reach out and touch” someone far away, but virtual communication through email and tools like Facebook and Twitter can’t replace the value of face-to-face interactions. We humans are social creatures, and while digital outreach is valuable and sometimes our easiest option, the Internet tends to act as a buffer between us and real intimacy.

Relationships and effective communication are built on eye contact, touch, feedback and unspoken physical communication. When possible, make the effort to visit friends and neighbors, attend parties and gatherings, contribute personal time through charitable efforts and catch up with people in person. That kind of communication is far better for our emotional health — and our souls.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Give the Gift of Health and Wellness

As the year wraps up and you contemplate all the ways of thanking and giving back to your staff for their time, effort, hard work, and contributions to your organization’s success, don’t overlook the gifts of health and wellness. That doesn’t mean you have to cancel the office party or return the eggnog! But when it comes to long-term value, appreciation, positive morale and team building, demonstrating a proactive commitment to areas of your employees’ lives that matter outside of the office or workplace are priceless.

As wonderful as this time of year may be, the holidays are typically a time of overindulgence. We eat too much rich, fattening food, drink more alcoholic beverages than usual, don’t sleep or exercise enough, run around like fruitcakes, and generally wear ourselves out. We know this about ourselves, however, which is why many people make their year-end “resolutions” to eat less, sleep more and exercise regularly in the New Year. Savvy employers can play a role in helping their employees achieve these goals through encouragement, open communication, setting team goals, and offering rewards for healthy behaviors.

You can start by encouraging employees to complete an online personal healthcare assessment. Available for free as part of CBIA Healthy Connections, these assessments are simple screening tools that don’t involve any testing or medical intervention, and help people set benchmarks and identify wellness and health items they’d like to improve. Based on their assessment, people can set goals and determine steps for improving key health items like reducing weight, eliminating smoking, exercising more regularly, improving their diets, reducing stress, and more.

Depending on staff size and location, you can consider having healthcare screenings done onsite for verifying cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure and related key indicators. You also can encourage your staff to set goals publicly among the team, then work together to achieve those goals. This could be through fitness center memberships, exercise classes, dance, yoga and a variety of recreation activities.

Altruism and volunteering are also valuable contributors to emotional health and wellbeing and to physical health as well. Supporting your employees’ efforts to donate time, money, and work for causes they believe in will help them feel better about themselves, help the community, and benefit everyone involved. That also benefits your company’s bottom line through enhanced morale, productivity, and teamwork. So, as the advertisements say, “give the gift that keeps on giving” by becoming actively involved in employee health and wellness.

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To enjoy the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!