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We only have a few weeks left of 2015 and if your calendars are anything like mine the remaining days of the year are filling up fast with parties, bashes, gatherings, celebrations and all manner of holiday events.  As much fun as this time of year can be, it can also be one of the most stressful as we add to our already busy lives tasks like preparing the house for guests, making our favorite foods and finding and wrapping the perfect gifts for each of our loved ones.  If only I would have listened to that thought back in September about starting my shopping early, rather than dismissing it in favor of doing…well, anything else.

The interesting thing about stress, whether it’s holiday related or not, is that it makes us do things that feel good in the moment but that aren’t really in our best interest in the long run.   This all has to do with how our brains work.  There are two parts of the brain that largely control our decision making – the thinking brain and the feeling brain.

The thinking brain is what we see when we imagine our brains; it does the complex thinking – difficult math problems, learning to play an instrument, assembling IKEA furniture.  It’s also the area of the brain that is capable of making decisions that are difficult now but good for us in the future, i.e. delayed gratification.

The feeling brain runs mostly subconsciously and it operates the skills we don’t think too much about – walking, talking, and breathing.  This part of the brain isn’t able to think about the future; it just knows what it wants to do right now.  When we’re calm, the thinking brain helps us make good long-term decisions but in times of stress, the thinking brain basically gets turned off leaving our feeling brain in charge.

Let me give you an example.  Imagine you are running around trying to get ready to go to a family member’s house for a holiday dinner.  You have to be there in two hours and you still have to make the dessert you said you’d bring, get the kids showered and dressed and drive 45 minutes to their house.  You finally get in the car and you wind up in traffic which makes you 20 minutes late getting there.  Are we stressed yet?  Now imagine yourself walking into the house and seeing your favorite treat – the really deliciously unhealthy one that is definitely NOT part of your diet.  Odds are you’re going to eat it.

There are actually scientific studies that show this.  People – and even other animals – who are stressed out eat more, and we eat unhealthier foods with higher fat and sugar content.  This is because the stress turns off our thinking brains, which tells us that it’s not in our long-term interest to eat the “bad” food, and it leaves the indulgent feeling brain in charge that only cares about how tasty that deliciously unhealthy treat is going to be when you put it in your mouth.

It’s at this point that you may be thinking “this is a finance blog, right?”  The reason any of this is relevant to your finances is because there are other ways that people cope with stress other than eating.  Some common ones are spending money or giving money away.  Both of these activities can feel really good in the moment.  They can also send us off track from our long-term goals and well-being if we spend or give too much.

The holiday season gives us this perilous mélange of stress-inducing busyness and ample opportunities to eat decadent food, spend copious amounts of money and give money to individuals and causes we care about.  During a normal time of year we still have stress, but we generally aren’t spending significant amounts of time in shopping malls or looking at Black Friday ads or being tempted by Cyber Monday deals.  We also don’t have Santa ringing a bell outside our grocery stores and Giving Tuesday media ramping up the urgency of donating to worthy causes.  At just the time we are prone to be more susceptible to indulge, society throws us into the perfect storm of temptation.  No wonder we wind up with a list of resolutions come January!

The good news is that there is a balance between immediate and delayed gratification.  If you can remember the next time you are stressed the tricky way our minds work, it might just give you the half a second you need to choose a stress reliever that feels good now but doesn’t hurt later.   Sing a carol, hug a family member, kiss someone under the mistletoe.  Sometimes that’s all it takes to reduce your stress and get your thinking brain back online.  Then you can resume taking part in all the wonderful things that make the holidays so pleasurable, while knowing both your present and your future will be merry and bright.