Christmas is a time of year many look forward to all year. Streets light up and decorations bring a fun and festive spirit everywhere you go. It’s a time for celebrating with family and friends, for laughing over hot cocoa, wearing ugly sweaters while ice skating, and for exchanging gifts. But as the preparations build, you may notice your feelings also going through transformations, too.
Many people attribute this happier state to a phenomenon known as Christmas Brain. But does the holiday change your brain compared to the rest of the year? Turns out, it does. With the holiday creeping closer to the chimney (with care), we wanted to give you a reason (or three) that the season might make your brain so jolly and bright.
1- The helper’s high
The idea of a helper’s high came about in the 1980s. Since then, steady research continues to uphold the initial findings. Turns out, there’s a reason Santa’s elves are always singing and smiling while they work.
When you are involved in the act of giving, your brain lights up like a Christmas tree. And Christmas is the time for giving. When you see your gift received with joy, the brain releases dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin, along with activating the emotional amygdala and the empathetic insula. Same when you engage in other giving behaviors like volunteering or donating to the less fortunate. It all triggers this feel-good effect.
Generosity activates the reward circuit in your brain releasing the neurochemicals associated with happiness and wellbeing. Dopamine increases your motivation and confidence, endorphins reduce your stress and improve your mood, and serotonin improves your sleep, memory, learning, and appetite. This combination incentivizes your brain to continue to engage in giving activities. The best part is, you can tap into this helper’s high anytime of year!
2- The Christmas spirit network
Some people seem to have Christmas on the brain. It turns out, they literally do. Researchers found that people who actively celebrate the holiday have pronounced reactions in their brains. Further, it isn’t simply engaging in those celebrations that activates your brain, simply talking about your annual traditions or viewing images that remind you of Christmas induces the same effects.
In 2015, a group of researchers from the University of Copenhagen performed a study with twenty participants. Ten celebrated Christmas and ten didn’t. They all had an FMRI scan of their brains while they were shown holiday imagery. Researchers found increased activity in the sensory motor cortex, the premotor cortex and primary motor cortex, and the parietal lobules in the people who celebrated Christmas.
This Christmas spirit network plays a pivotal role in spirituality, facial recognition and memory, body sensations, and interpreting emotions. They activate sensations along with memories, which then trigger the feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin. These are the areas that are typically connected with self-transcendence and spirituality, social bonding-sharing behavior, and recognition of facial emotion. This means, your brain literally has a Christmas Network that gets especially activated during this time of the year.
3- The cuddle effect
Christmas is often associated with spending time and reconnecting with the people you care about. Most people get time off from work or school, and whether you travel or stay home, it’s common to spend more time with your friends and families. This feeling of togetherness prompts the brain to release the hormone oxytocin, otherwise known as the cuddle hormone.
Oxytocin is responsible for the warm fuzzy feelings associated with all the varieties of love. The more time you spend with people you love, the more this feeling of trust and intimacy grows because it prompts your brain to produce more oxytocin. It’s connected to trust, empathy, and intimacy. This means, being close to your family and friends during this time reinforces their bond with you and their significance in your life. And because these are tied with your memories, thinking about the holidays can release oxytocin in your brain, making you crave time with friends and family.
The Happiness Trifecta
Together, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin is called ‘The Happiness Trifecta’. These are the brain chemicals that drive happiness in your brain. And Christmas can send these neurochemicals on overdrive.
But there are also people for whom Christmas is not all fun and games. It can bring significant amount of problems, too.
Planning and arranging the festivities can cause severe anxiety and stress, especially if you’re trying to manage the added work to an already busy and overloaded schedule. If you’re struggling with grief or dealing with mental health conditions, this time of year can be especially difficult.
Beat the festive blues
If you’re stressing out, or unhappy during this time, here are a few tips to beat the festive blues.
- Plan ahead. Don’t wait for last minute sales and do your shopping well ahead of time. Send out invites and make the necessary booking arrangements as early as possible. This will ensure you have at least a blueprint of your schedule and plans ready before things start, and you’ll be relatively stress-free.
- Don’t go overboard with your budget. The Christmas spirit is about generosity and not about how expensive or spectacular your gifts or arrangements are. Make a budget and stick to it. It will actually save you a great deal of stress in the long run.
- Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. You don’t have to do everything alone. Involve your friends and family in the preparation instead of treating them as guests. You’ll have a great deal more fun, and your workload too will decrease.
- Process your grief and trauma. If you are depressed or grieving, repressing those emotions may do more harm to your brain. Be gentle with yourself. Remember to be kind to yourself and ease the pressure you put on yourself during this time of year.
Christmas is a holiday that looks different for everyone. Celebrations can be big or small, religious or secular. The festivities are time for your brain to unwind and relax. And engaging in giving can help get your happy hormones going, helping you feel motivated and cheerful even if you find yourself doing more. No matter how you decide to celebrate, just remember to embrace your Christmas cheer. Your brain will thank you.