Let me preface this post by saying I'm no Scrooge by any stretch of the imagination — but you don't have to hate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or any other winter holiday in order to struggle with anxiety during the holiday season. In fact, I actually love the holidays. When I was a kid, there was a rule in my house that we couldn't talk about Christmas until after Thanksgiving — but today, I immediately begin blasting holiday tunes and waltzing around my apartment to The Nutcracker score the moment November 1st arrives. However, none of this prevents me from feeling holiday anxiety.
And I'm not alone. In fact, many people who don't struggle with anxiety disorder during the rest of the year feel more anxious and stressed than usual during the holidays. U.S. News reports that nearly three quarters of Americans experience increased anxiety and depression during the holidays. And it's really not surprising — for many of us, the holidays mean financial concerns, stressful travel, and overwhelming logistics to manage. If we've recently lost a loved one, we may feel their absence more painfully and acutely. Plus, no matter how calm you are, there's always that one relative who grinds your gears by asking a million personal questions about your relationship status, income, or why you don't visit more often. For those of us who don't exactly excel at small talk, large family gatherings with people we only see once a year are basically the stuff of nightmares. Who wouldn't feel anxious dealing with all of that?
And because of all these factors, the holidays can be an exceptionally trying period for people struggling with generalized anxiety disorder and other anxiety-related problems. Here are seven tips to help handle holiday anxiety and stress, based on expert advice and my own experiences navigating the holidays with anxiety disorder.
1. Be Mindful Of Your Physical Health
The holiday season conveniently coincides with cold and flu season — and your anxiety is going to feel way more overwhelming and exhausting if you're also battling a physical illness. While none of us are able to completely control whether or not we get sick, we can take steps to make our odds of coming down with something less likely. Make sure to eat healthy and get enough sleep so your body is better equipped to fight off all the illnesses that are going around.
And if you do get sick, take it seriously and don't try to solider on through the holiday festivities while you're hacking up a lung — because when you're physically compromised, coping with your anxiety is going to be way more difficult.
2. Respect Your Limits
We should never try to "cope" with our anxiety by simply avoiding all of our triggers — and the holidays are no exception. But that doesn't mean we have to say "yes" to every single invite or push ourselves to the breaking point, either. Ideally, try to find a middle ground that doesn't involve hiding completely, but also honors your limits regarding how much social interaction or holiday planning you're healthily able to be a part of.
For example, many people find office parties to be anxiety-inducing. But the answer probably isn't to call out sick that day (unless you're actually sick — see above). However, you also don't need to stay at the party for six hours, even if coworkers insist you're missing out if you don't stick around until the DJ plays "Jingle Bell Rock" for the 14th time. Figure out how to balance your holiday responsibilities with your own needs — so if you end up just making a brief appearance, saying hello to your boss, eating some free hors d'oeuvres, and then heading home to unwind, don't feel guilty.
Similarly, plan ahead and find ways to get your holiday tasks done with minimal anxiety. If crowds overwhelm you, don't torture yourself by going shopping at 3 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. Plan ahead so you can either do your holiday shopping online or at a time when hordes of people won't be flooding the shops.
3. Don't Rely On Alcohol To Ease Your Anxiety
Drinking to take the edge off can be a huge temptation during the holidays — especially when you're at an open-bar work party or a family gathering with bottomless spiked eggnog . But although it takes the edge off in the moment, ultimately alcohol will make your anxiety worse. So be mindful of your alcohol intake at holiday parties — set a limit and stick to it. If you're not sure what the appropriate limit should be, chat with your doctor or psychiatrist. For many of us, the holidays are a marathon, not a sprint — so seeking a quick fix like booze can end up making it harder to get through the season with your nerves intact.
4. Focus On External Details Of An Event
Anxiety often causes us to focus on small details and concerns of an event or project — like who we'll be seated next to during dinner, for instance — which can quickly become magnified and overwhelming.
To deal with this, Dr. Kalina Michalska suggests in Medical News Today that we "focus on the external areas of a social event." Simply put, this means distracting yourself with errands during holiday gatherings so that you have less time to sit and worry. Offer to help the host with cooking, setting the table, or any other task that will keep you occupied and in the moment. You'll be distracted, your host will appreciate it, and it could give you a nice break from that one relative who just cannot believe that you're still single. Everyone wins!
5. Have A Support System In Place
There's no getting around it — sometimes you'll have to attend a holiday gathering that you know is going to be a huge challenge. So if you have an social event on the horizon that you pretty much know will make you feel anxious, plan ahead, rather than just trying to wing it and pray that your anxiety won't take over.
Is there a family member who understands you and helps calm your nerves? If so, talk to them in advance so they can be mindful of how you're holding up. You may even be able to bring a friend with you, if they don't have any obligations that day and it's OK with the host. If there's really no one who can support you and also be physically present at the event, make sure there's a sympathetic friend or family member you can call or text when you need a break and someone to talk to.
Depending on your family dynamics, you may feel lonely during a family gathering and as though you don't have any allies — and that's a pretty terrible feeling. But even if you're not super close with any of the relatives in attendance, there are probably a few who are at least fun to hang out with and don't cause your stomach to engage in anxiety-induced backflips. Even if you're not comfortable confiding in them, it's still a good idea to hang with them and sit near them during the meal.
6. Use Your Usual Strategies
If you're living with anxiety disorder, you've probably developed some coping strategies to use during tough situations. Although we should always use these strategies, be especially mindful of them during the stressful days of the holiday season. Plan ahead as best you can and think about which coping mechanism will be most effective in the upcoming situations you'll be dealing with. And, as always, don't wait until you're in the throes of a panic attack to start your breathing exercise. The moment you feel your anxiety setting in, nip it in the bud by taking deep breaths, visualizing a safe space, or engaging in whatever strategy you find most helpful.
7. Focus On The Positives
I know this is easier said than done, but trust me — it helps. (I'm speaking from experience.) Even if you're not quite Buddy the Elf, there are probably a few seasonal traditions that you do enjoy and cherish. So whether it's being reunited with your childhood friends when you take a trip home, watching the Thanksgiving Day parade, baking cookies for your neighbors, or attending a holiday show like The Nutcracker (my personal favorite), try to find something to look forward to during the holiday season. And don't just trust that you'll eventually get around to the parts of the holiday that you enjoy — make plans in advance so you have something concrete to look forward to. That way, if Thanksgiving dinner leaves you desperate to crawl under a rock until New Year's, you can try to re-focus those thoughts onto an activity that you're looking forward to. This Thanksgiving dinner shall pass, and tomorrow you'll get to enjoy a holiday show with your childhood friend.
Most importantly, take care of yourself and be gentle with yourself. The holidays are challenging, but you're strong. So respect your limits, ask for help when you need it, and plan some well-deserved holiday activities to enjoy. You've got this!