The holidays, while a joyful time for many, can be painful and stressful for others. The holidays can trigger and bring about a host of nerve-wracking and worrying thoughts and experiences, particularly for those who suffer with various anxiety disorders.
Holiday anxiety is common, as Roxanne, an accountant and single mother, only knows too well.
“I have a number of clients who tell me how their stress at Christmas spikes,” she says. “It’s all the family obligations, the mounting bills, the growing lists of people to buy for… everything just feels like it gets more expensive at this time of year, and finances are already a major stressor for people all year long. So during the holidays, everyone just gets more anxious, not to mention depressed."
Roxanne is sympathetic, because she too suffers from anxiety and panic attacks.
“Personally, I love the holidays, but I have to admit that it’s around Thanksgiving that I start to freak out, especially over my own personal finances, because I feel like I have to veer away from my budget. There’s always another party to host, another present to buy, charities I can’t say no to. I don’t resent those things, but I do get scared. That manifests into panic attacks for me, which just perpetuates the fear.”
For others, like Bill, the holidays represent the need to socialize. Bill has social anxiety disorder, which means that when the month of December rolls around, he feels in a constant state of stress.
“Even just opening the company party invite makes me sweat,” admits Bill, an IT tech for a small company. “We only have maybe 15 employees, but the owner is really generous and a real party guy, so he invites every employee, their spouse and families to a banquet hall just outside the city. Everyone gets all excited about Secret Santa and getting to relax, but that’s definitely not the experience for someone like me.
“I get nauseous when I think about stuff like that. Like now, even just talking about it, I feel like throwing up.”
Fortunately, there are many ways you can mitigate or minimize the stress you may feel during the holidays. Following are 5 simple tips to keep your stress and anxiety levels down.
1. Acknowledge your feelings of being stressed and overwhelmed. Ignoring your symptoms will not help you in the long term. It’s okay to feel stressed and overwhelmed – it doesn’t make you wrong or weak. Studies have shown that psychological problems occur or get worse due to emotional avoidance. While avoiding feeling negative feelings is not bad in the short term (it’s okay too to try to find ways to feel better in the moment), over the long term, avoiding acceptance of negative feelings may lead you toward negative things, which mask those bad feelings. Sometimes, burying bad feelings means adopting bad behaviors or coping skills.
Ignoring your feelings may also feel scary in itself, because the more you ignore your feelings, the scarier they become when they arise. Refusing to acknowledge how stressed you are doesn’t make your stress go away, and in fact, feeling anxious over impending situations will likely feel even worse than experiencing the event itself! When you’re anxious, you’re probably imagining the worst case scenarios, when in reality, those things you fear are probably never going to happen.
“When I’m mindful – meaning I acknowledge I’m in pain, but that I’m also okay, sitting on my chair, with my feet on the floor, and nothing bad is happening to me right at this second, I feel my energy shift,” shares Roxanne. “I find when I accept that I’m feeling scared and worried, I actually become more logical about what I’m feeling. It feels totally counterintuitive, because you’d think when you accept feeling bad, you’re giving in to it. But it’s the opposite. Owning it gives you power over it.”
2. Focus on others. When stress and anxiety take hold, it’s easy to want to isolate yourself, hiding in a cocoon. But when you hole up and move away from the world, your anxiety may only fester and grow, making it even more frightening and overwhelming.
Reaching out to people and getting involved with others is a wonderfully therapeutic thing. Especially during the holidays, when people’s needs are magnified, connecting with those in need – or anyone who would appreciate the help and company – is a tip to alleviate your holiday stress.
Some ways to help yourself by helping others include:
Volunteer. Head to a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, and volunteer your services. You might be asked to wash dishes, help cook some meals, or just spend time having conversations with the people who come in and out from the cold. It’s not just soup kitchens that welcome volunteers – you can visit a humane society, tutor young students, read to those in old age homes, help out at hospice centers, or clean up local parks. No matter your interest, there’s an organization eager to have you.
Donate. At this time of year, when many of us are getting and gifting, it’s a great idea to clean up. Go through your closet and start a donation of pile of things you haven’t used in the last two years. Not only will it help you feel clean and refreshed at home, you’ll be helping out some individuals in need who will be thrilled to find some of your old treasures.
Perform random acts of kindness. Make it a habit, starting now, to perform one random act of kindness every day. It could be putting change in someone’s parking meter, or buying a homeless person a meal, or doing a chore for a loved one, like their laundry. You may even write someone a nice email acknowledging their hard work or what they mean to you.
Spend time with friends and family. Sometimes the simplest things are the things we forget about, but they’re the ones that don’t go unnoticed. Read to a child in your family, or take a grandparent out for dinner. This kind of connection isn’t just good for you, it’s good for them too. The expression of love is great medicine.
3) Stick to healthy habits. When trying to fight symptoms of anxiety, it’s especially important not to throw your routine out the window just because it’s the holiday season.
To help ease anxiety during the holidays, continue to work out, maintain a healthy diet and do things that encourage healthy living.
“When you’re surrounded with all this food – cookies, turkey, fruitcake, everything under the sun – and you’re pressed for time because you have so many things to do, it’s easy to let that good habit stuff go,” agrees Roxanne, who says she starts every day with yoga and eggs. “I know that I really feel it when I go hungry and when I’m not active. And I don’t mean active like I’m running from this work party to this family gathering – I mean consciously being active, actually purposely moving and exercising and maintaining my health that way.
“I know only too well what it’s like to give up on myself physically. It tears me apart mentally, so it’s not worth it to skip a 20 minute workout or breakfast. And you gotta shed that turkey somehow!”
If overindulging with food is a problem for you, here are some tips to keep yourself from overeating:
Pick only the foods that you love, instead piling your dish with everything
Keep holiday parties to a minimum if you can – this way you’re only eating one enormous meal instead of three, for example:
If you do overeat, don’t beat yourself up; just get back on track the next day
Eat the good, healthy foods first (start with leans, greens and grains), so by the time you get to pie, you’ll already be full!
Don’t drink your calories – put the alcohol down and stick to food
Drink lots of water to stay hydrated and fill up
Watch your portion sizes. Just because you’re eating healthy doesn’t mean you’re not overindulging
Wear fitted clothing! Choosing stretchy pants that don’t remind you how full you are will likely make you overeat
If your overeating has become a coping mechanism, see a therapist for assistance
4) Remember you’re not perfect and that’s okay. It’s important to be realistic and understand that you are not going to be perfect in every scenario.
Some days are going to be better than others. Some days you’ll feel as though you can conquer the world, while on other days, you’ll be tempted to stay in bed. The important thing is to remember that you don’t need to stay in that dark place; you can make the decision to get up and get moving and feel better.
Here are some things you can think about when you’re starting to feel your self-esteem dive:
Strive for progress, not perfection. If you can improve a little each day, consider it a success. No one is perfect, and you’ll be disappointed trying to be. Instead, celebrate your progress and try again the next day.
Smile. Ever heard of faking it til you make it? The act of smiling on purpose has been proven to help people feel better, because it actually changes your brain chemistry. Smiling not only reduces stress, it actually tricks your body into believing your mood is up. Some scientists have even said that smiling helps the immune system to function well, and even lowers your blood pressure. On top of all of this, smiling just does feel good, releasing endorphins, serotonin and other natural painkillers.
Be kind to yourself. Think about the way you talk to yourself, the things you say inside your own head that no one else hears. Now think about the person you love most in this world. Would you talk to them the way you talk to yourself? If not, reconsider your personal , internal dialogue. If you find you beat yourself up regularly, let up on yourself. Let go of the anger, the hurt, the bitterness and the resentment you might have for yourself and mistakes you might have made in the past, and give way to positivity, love, compassion and kindness.
5. Plan, plan, plan. It’s always good to have a plan and mentally prepare for any stressful scenarios that may arise.
If you’re like Bill, it might be social gatherings. In this situation, you might want to create a list of things you’re scared of, and rate them from 1 to 10 (10 being the scariest and 1 being the least).
Your list might look like this:
Getting dressed for the party (2)
Driving to the party (5)
Walking into the party (10)
Talking to people at the party (8)
Having to start a conversation (10)
Eating in front of people (7)
When you get to each point on your list, consider how you’re actually feeling and compare it to the number you originally marked down. You might be surprised at how much less anxious or frightened you actually were, compared to how anxious you thought you might be.
If your anxiety is about finances, or getting together with family members you don’t get along with, or just the general craziness of the entire holiday season, getting a plan together makes a really big difference. Come up with a strategy to combat and challenge your worries. Here are some examples:
I have too many gifts to buy and not enough money. If you have a large family, consider making a suggestion to everyone to only buy for one adult and one child (a modified Secret Santa, of sorts). Everyone will appreciate spending less money, and it will make the one present just that much more valuable. If this suggestion gets shot down, recommend lowering spending limits.
I don’t get along with my sister-in-law, and I’m uncomfortable at her house. Try kindness and silence. If you’re scared to say the wrong thing, or you’re worried others – like you sister-in-law – are judging you, think again. They’re probably just like you, worried what you’re thinking about them! Try offering a sincere, authentic compliment, and spend time with other family members with whom you do get along.
I’m scared to fly. Confide in one of the flight attendants, or perhaps even the pilot – they’re very used to this, and will likely have some very comforting things to say. Plan ahead and bring some books or a tablet with you, and distract yourself throughout the flight.
Remember that holiday stress or anxiety over the holidays is common, and you’re not alone. If you need more guidance, visit www.hopetherapyandwellness.com.