Fighting the Holi-daze

Local experts help find balance in chaos

GA TRUSLOW Gateway 159Photographed by Bill Truslow

You spent weeks planning Thanksgiving dinner—ordered the free-range turkey, stocked up on a bevy of local libations, put your own well-honed spin on all the fixin’s—and now, it’s over. With the faint din of football droning in the distance, you dry the last dish, grab your glass of merlot, and head to a living room filled with laughter and loved ones. Scanning the room to take in the smiling faces, the family, and friends, you forget for a second the untold hours and near disasters that made it all possible.


Then, just as you feel yourself beginning to relax, a harsh reminder jolts the brain: I have to start shopping tomorrow.

Between pies and presents, five-course meals, and family visits, the holidays have long been a source of as much stress as cheer, and as many headaches as heartwarming moments. According to a 2006 study conducted by the American Psychological Association, a whopping 68 percent of those polled claimed to experience some level of stress “often or sometimes.” Meanwhile, 38 percent said their level of stress increased noticeably during the holiday season, while only eight percent cited a decrease in stress.

Here on the Seacoast, where unpredictable weather and bad traffic can compound the pressure, those numbers can be even higher. But so too are the growing ranks of local health professionals committed to helping individuals avoid the burnout and meltdowns associated with holiday stress.

For Bill Buckley, owner of Gateway Taiji, Qigong, and Yoga in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, managing stress is less about attempting to eliminate it—doing so can often add to one’s already bursting bundle of nerves—than parlaying it into a more productive, transformative energy.

“Stress generally arises from the chaos of having 10 million different things to do, and that can be exacerbated significantly during the holidays,” Buckley says. “What we teach here through taiji [pronounced tai chi] is how to develop mindfulness, to get off the treadmill of daily life, and gain a better, broader perspective which, when attained, helps you deal with that stress much more effectively.”

Of the many reasons why taiji, qigong, and yoga have been practiced for countless centuries by billions the world over, striking a sense of psychic balance is right near the top. Ditto improved health, easier breathing, improved movement, and a deeper spiritual connection between the body and mind.

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“For me, the benefits of taiji were so immediate, even in the face of a pretty stressful job, that I never looked back,” says Buckley, who worked in the computer industry before opening Gateway last October. “Like meditation, we help people try and get some peace and quiet in a totally chaotic world, or in a totally chaotic season like the holidays.”

“The idea is to help individuals build up their body’s energy so that they can effectively heal themselves,” Buckley says. “It’s not like a lot of Western exercises, which focus more on the larger muscle groups. Instead, qigong targets the tendons, ligaments, joints, and other connections that help facilitate that energy flow.”

Like Bill Buckley, Jess Caruso’s professional journey has not been without its turns and detours. In 1996 when she was in college, Caruso was hit head-on by a drunk driver. After months of physical, psychological, and emotional struggles, a chance meeting with a chiropractor sparked in Caruso an immediate appreciation for the power of that increasingly popular practice. “Just by putting her hands on me, she pinpointed a lot of my issues almost immediately,” Caruso says. “As she started explaining how the nervous system works, how it connects literally the whole body, a light went off in my head.”

Today, Caruso, along with her husband, Brian, own and operate Healing Hands Community Chiropractic (HHCC), located in downtown Portsmouth. Coupling traditional chiropractic services with health seminars, workshops, a community blog, and charitable initiatives, HHCC stands as a testament to the Carusos’ belief in the power of community-focused care. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the office’s use of a sliding scale, whereby patients pay what they can—anywhere from $20 to $40 per visit—all without income verification or insurance company badgering.

“We want the doctor-patient relationship to be a true partnership,” says Caruso, who recognizes the physical and mental trials and tribulations triggered by the holidays. “Life is already full of time pressures and frustrations—racing against deadlines, sitting in traffic, getting the kids to soccer on time—and the holidays only add to this,” she says. “I notice elevated levels of stress among my patients every year around this time, and it’s not a coincidence.” Holiday stress is more a symptom than a disease, and allowing stressful situations such as cooking, wrapping, baking, or cleaning to pile up without giving the body proper time to recover can lead to a number of health hazards: obesity, insomnia, digestive issues, and even more serious conditions such as heart disease.

“As a family wellness chiropractor, I teach my patients that a healthy nervous system, maintained through regular chiropractic care, and a lifestyle focused around eating, moving, and thinking well is the ideal way to go,” Caruso says. “They are all connected, which means relieving stress is more a systemic process than just getting rid of holiday tasks or responsibilities.”

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Yet both Buckley and Caruso agree that the path to true wellness, while a long one, often yields its biggest dividends with that first step. “It gets back to what I call the 70-30 rule,” Buckley explains. “The 30 percent is what we call intervention, or taking a few minutes to remind yourself what it’s like to be mindful. A quick meditation can accomplish this even if you’ve never meditated or rarely meditate. If you’re in an environment where you can remember the feeling of being settled and centered, that kind of hook can be huge.”

The ability to parse the necessary to-dos (finding just the right gift for Mom or Dad) from those that are wholly dispensable (making sure the table streamers match the placemats) may be all you need to carve out the extra couple hours for some much-needed holiday R & R. Both Buckley and Caruso insist that “you” time is always there for the taking, even if the calendar shows little in the way of white between the ink.

Then again, sometimes it helps to forget yourself and remember the tie that binds this most special of seasons—giving. “It doesn’t need to be the physical act of going to the mall and buying something for someone,” Caruso says. “It can be giving a compliment or giving to a lonely elderly neighbor, a child in need, or the homeless. These acts of kindness not only inspire others in your community to connect, but they bring perspective to those of us who are so focused on our own crazy and hectic schedules.

“My advice is to stop, breathe, and remember to find joy during the holidays through giving, which can be the greatest stress reliever of all.” 

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