It may feel like there are similarities between what happens to our brains during the holidays and what happens to our brains when we use drugs.

But by understanding the potential positive affects many year-end activities can have, we can change from feeling fried, to refreshed and ready for the new year.

Learning something new

One of my sisters recently noted she was about to complete a knitting class. In the midst of the hubbub of Thanksgiving, Christmas shopping and several birthday celebrations, she had committed to a multiple-session class to learn how to knit.

While I assumed that would have increased her stress levels, instead she said it reduced them because it forced her to sit still each class, concentrate on something completely new to her and, best of all, would result in the creation of several gifts.

Research by a few professors at Harvard confirms her claims. According to their studies, when we have a lot to do, we tend to either try to push through or run away. Pushing through makes us tired and less productive. Running away does not address whatever was stressing us out and can increase our stress when we have to come back to it.

However, they found that learning something new helps us feel more competent and confident. It also redirects our focus away from what is causing us stress. And, it helps us solve a problem which may also directly affect the cause of our stress.

In other words, my sister was right: learning to knit helped her focus on something positive, gave her a boost of confidence and feelings of control, and resulted in a bit of a solution to her Christmas shopping.

While it may be tough (or uninteresting!) to find a knitting class, watching a documentary could help us learn something new, change our perspective at work and provide something to discuss at the next holiday networking event.

OK, just stop ringing the bell

The holidays also thrust niceness in our faces. It is the most wonderful time of the year and the time that more people than ever give of their time, money and other resources to help those who are less fortunate. Instead of getting frustrated by the increase in emails, calls and pleas for assistance, take advantage of the increased opportunity to help others that the season provides.

Helping others or doing something nice for someone other than ourselves positively impacts our brains by increasing the levels of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin; all of which improve our mood while reducing our levels of stress hormones.

While giving more of our time or money at this time of year may not be within our ability or charitable approach, adding a few simple, genuine gestures of kindness can be. By deciding before each potentially stressful situation to look for an opportunity to help, we can instantly reduce stress and improve our mood.

For example, when faced with a long line, instead of being stressed, we could buy a coffee for the person behind us; let the mom with kids go before us, or simply put down the phone and try to make the cashier smile.

The bottom line is that, in many cases, the stress around this season can be flipped to improve our moods and the benefit of practicing these habits