What’s Happening in Your Brain During the Holidays

There’s nothing quite like the holiday season when it comes to feeling all the feels.

This time of year triggers different emotions for everyone. “We are used to running on adrenaline, going from one stressful deadline to another and trying to juggle work and our personal lives,” Emma Seppälä, PhD, science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, tells Yahoo Health. That’s why when we’re finally able to settle down and enjoy time with friends and family, it can lead to a surge of sentiments.

If we’re getting scientific, the twinkling lights, Santas, menorahs, wreaths, and other holiday insignia trigger neurological processes that are created by the cerebral cortex of the brain (interacting with the amygdala and insula) that processes physiological information. It leads to a culmination of emotions — if you celebrate Christmas, for example, that’ll likely be Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.

As you go through your family’s traditions, this is what’s happening inside your brain to make you feel the way you do.

As You Open Presents, You Experience:

Anticipation: Your brain releases dopamine, known as the reward neurotransmitter, when you think something pleasurable is about to happen. “Just expecting to open a gift you want can make you happy in anticipation,” Seppälä explains. 

Gratitude: Activity in the hypothalamus increases when you feel grateful. Dopamine levels also increase when you feel this way. Gratitude can boost feelings of happiness, and decrease anxiety or depression.

As You Sip Hot Cocoa By the Fire, You Experience:

Relaxation: “When we relax, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system, the ’rest and digest’ response,” Seppälä says. “Your body finds time to restore itself and rebuild its resources. Your mind calms down and you start to feel better, happier, healthier, and more joyful and energetic.”

When You Reunite With Family, You Experience: 

Love: “Social connection and love releases hormones like oxytocin in your body, which makes you feel more bonded to people, more trusting, and more happy,” Seppälä says.

Joy: The chemicals your brain releases when you feel joy are similar to the ones that trigger you to feel gratitude and love. When you are joyous, your dopamine levels increase, brightening your connection with the world around you and helping you feel pleasure, David Goldman, PhD, a neuroscientist with the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, explained to Psychology Today.

As You Sing Carols, You Experience:

Nostalgia: The amygdala in the brain takes credit for forming memories tied to emotional experiences, like singing “Silent Night” as a kid with your family, according to research out of Bryn Mawr College. The hippocampus, the part of the brain that regulates the recollection of events, triggers memories that cause you to feel nostalgic for those childhood moments as you answer the door to carolers.

If you Can’t Make it Home for the Holidays, You Experience: 

Loneliness: The stress associated with feeling left out lowers your levels of serotonin, a chemical which contributes to feelings of happiness, according to a study in Science.

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