Your neurobiological guide to a great Christmas and end-of-year break

When we think of the Christmas and New Year period in Australia, images of hot days, ice cream, cool drinks, swimming, cricket, sunburn, last minute Xmas shopping, first minute sale shopping, spending time with the people who mean most to us, and guilt-free laziness come to mind.

I was listening to someone talking about how he wouldn’t miss Christmas if it wasn’t a thing, and I realised that, despite working through it for many years, I would. In most cultures there are celebrations that mark anniversaries, endings and beginnings. In the past they were often connected with seasonal change, agriculture, religion, celestial changes or significant events. Many combined a few of those things, and many continue today. But, compared to other holidays and celebrations, why does the Christmas and end-of-year break mean so much to so many of us?

Dopamine does it again!

It’s all to do with our reward circuitry, notably the mesolimbic dopamine pathway. Memories of past Christmases and holidays as a special and happy event, most especially from childhood, link a pleasurable dopamine-based reward with recall and anticipation. Things like singing (or just listening to music), eating, drinking, talking, laughing and togetherness with friends and family all trigger dopamine hits, and the long lead-up and slow wind-down, along with it being a time for everyone (unlike a birthday), allows the experience to create strong synaptic connections. From a very young age Christmas shapes the brain!

Music also down-regulates fear, allowing us to anticipate and enjoy the days more, and unexpected surprises, like wrapped gifts, give us an even bigger dopamine blast. Smiling, laughing and interacting also release oxytocin, which builds bonds, affirms relationships and feels great. Dopamine and oxytocin are so good together!

There are also dopamine releases from gift-buying and wrapping, as well as preparing decorations and food. Doing things for others is hugely motivating (anticipation of interpersonal reward) and enjoyable (receiving a reward of love and appreciation trains the brain to want to do it again, despite the challenges). So, if someone else is taking care of things, don’t take your host’s hard work for granted! Whether at a work or family event, remember to say thanks. Smile. Let them see you enjoy yourself!

Stuff got done!

This time of year is also linked to the reward system in another way. When we have lots of incomplete tasks we can feel overwhelmed, raising stress and triggering the norepinephrine and cortisol-driven sympathetic nervous system, in turn shortening temper, reducing cognitive capacity (effectively lowering IQ) and contributing to chronic ill-health. As tasks are completed the stress is lifted with a dopamine hit that supports a parasympathetic nervous system response, down-regulating those stress chemicals and helping us to feel good about what we did – and to also learn from the experience. Deadlines and other pressures multiply these shifts from distress to reward, and for optimal reward and learning (and future anticipation), time for feelings of achievement and reflection on a job well done is crucial.

In this way, the Christmas and New year break often also signals completion – of a school year, of a work year, and quite often for many deadline-linked tasks and projects. With some reflection on achievements, it can feel good at the time and create motivation to do similar things again. These feelings are amazingly important for personal capacity and well-being, and so it is important that you help them to help you.

A gift for your brain

My thoughts that might be helpful as you get closer to your end-of year break:

· Put plenty of anticipation, appreciation and affection into your break and celebrations. Make them count.

·Take time to reflect on the year, including what you achieved and how you overcame challenges and setbacks.

·Be generous in your reflections – Regrets, guilt and blame are only useful if you let them motivate you toward better choices next time. And be aware of your assumptions about the motives of others – we are driven to make sense about things we don’t know about, and, because of what we don’t know, we’re rarely correct. Can you be cool with not knowing why – or just let it go anyway?

·Spend plenty of time enjoying the moments – those when you wind down, those when you ramp it up and those when you just spend time with others. Remember to moderate your food and alcohol (it all still counts), and remember to stay active – movement is great for mind, body, gut health, immune system, the lot!

·Perhaps most of all, think about the people who shared your year with you, and those who will be there to share the next one. As a social instrument your brain is wired so that the thoughts you feel for others, along with the things you say and do for them, has the same effect on you. The more you help and care and love, the happier, healthier, better-connected and less stressed you will feel too. Life is a team sport.

If you have to work through and don’t get much of a break, please make the most of the chances you have to relax, reset and re-energise. And, not matter how serious work can get, don’t get too tied up in thinking about next year’s challenges too quickly, or you’ll short-change yourself on the rewards you’ve earned this year. First things first.

Have a great one, and a big ho ho ho to you!