The holidays can be a stressful time for many.  Whether that is from planning, coordinating care when establishments are closed, or feeling more isolated, know that your feelings are valid.  Feeling stressed can be an uncomfortable feeling, and can come with different symptoms, depending on the person.  In psychology, polyvagal theory can explain some of the symptoms we feel attributed to stress.  In this article, we are going to explore why the holidays are so stressful, how polyvagal theory impacts stress, and three easy practices you can do to assist!

Why the Holidays are so Stressful

The holiday season can be stressful for numerous reasons.  Some of those reasons include:

  • Colder weather flaring up chronic pain
  • Shorter amounts of daylight
  • Less opportunities to go outside
  • Disruption to routine due to establishments closing for the holidays
  • Needing child care when children are off of school
  • Planning events or gatherings
  • Spending time with family that may be triggering
  • Feeling lonely or isolated if you do not celebrate, or cannot identify someone to spend time with

Do any of these seem familiar to you? 

If so, you are not alone.  Many people report heightened anxiety or depressed mood attributed with the winter months and holiday season.  With stress, you may feel a variety of emotions not limited to:

  • Hypervigilance 
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Isolation
  • Changes in sleep and/or appetite

What all these symptoms have in common is your fight-or-flight response.  The main variable in this response?  The vagus nerve.

Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal theory is the emerging theory in psychology and neuroscience on the major role the vagus nerve plays in anxiety, fear, and the fight-or-flight response.  Previously used to explain a faint feeling associated with physical triggers such as blood tests and bowel movements, polyvagal theory is now also being attributed with stress and trauma.  Want to run away from the never ending to-do list over the holiday week? Vagus nerve.  Want to scream at that aunt who just won’t stop asking when you are going to get married?  Vagus nerve.

So, how can you start to get this vagus nerve response under control?  Glad you asked.

3 Simple Practices You Can Try

Cold Exposure

Cold exposure is when a person exposes small parts of their skin to cold temperatures, usually water.  This “shocks” the vagus nerve and makes you focus on the feeling of the cold as opposed to the other stressors and symptoms in your body.  Ways to practice this include:

  • Holding an ice cube in your hand.
  • Running your wrist under cold water.
  • Splashing your face with cool water.

Note: This exercise should never hurt.  If it does, discontinue.  Make sure the temperature of the water is as cool as you can tolerate.


Yoga is a great way to work on your vagus nerve due to the nature of being in different positions.  The various movements force your vagus nerve to adapt to the different positions.  If you are new to yoga, start slowly.  Do not push the boundaries too quickly.  If you feel dizzy, stop and consult a doctor.

Vocal Exercises

Your throat is considered a powerful hub for the vagus nerve.  By engaging your throat, you are activating the area.  Ways you can practice this include:

  • Gargling water
  • Humming
  • Singing
  • Chanting

Next Steps

Another strategy to help with fight-or-flight symptoms is to talk to a trained counselor about your triggers.  At online-therapy, we have a team of trained experts who would be happy to assist you with your journey.