In the Age of Anxiety

Panic, compulsions, phobias, and more

10 Common Holiday Stresses and How to Cope with Them

Tips for managing the anxiety of the season.

The holidays can be demanding for many reasons, but if you're prone to anxiety they can be downright overwhelming. The gifts, the parties, the baking, the family—or perhaps the absence of these things—can make the season stressful, chaotic or just plain lonely.

But even in the midst of all this holiday hubbub, you can take control of your anxiety. With some practical strategies for managing the stress of this season, you may even end up enjoying this frenetic time of year. Look for these common holiday complaints in your life and use the tips below to find peace and joy in this year's holiday season:

1.)  I can't get it all done! The entertaining, shopping, travel and myriad other tasks that accompany the holidays can just feel like too much on top of an already-packed schedule. If you are feeling pulled in too many different directions, take a moment to slow down. Take the opportunity to plan menus and consider gift ideas ahead of time. Make lists of the items you will need and then give yourself a few days to add anything you may have forgotten before heading out to brave the crowds. By organizing, prioritizing and grouping tasks together, you can minimize the stress of multiple trips to the grocery store or mall and avoid last minute scrambling.

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2.) I can't afford this! Beginning in September (or maybe even August!) we are bombarded with television and magazine ads depicting holiday tables overflowing with food and gifts stockpiled under beautifully decorated fir trees. It is easy to overspend in an attempt to reach these holiday expectations. Set a budget and avoid the temptation to stray. When you are making your gift lists, determine how much you can spend on each person and stick with it! Consider pooling resources to buy group gifts for friends. Draw names from a hat and buy gifts for one family member rather than all of them. Think about handmade gifts like baked goods, ornaments or a recipe book or photo album. Or give the gift of time by babysitting for a friend or helping your grandmother clean her attic-it's free and often the most thoughtful present you can give.

3.) This isn't how I thought it would be! The holidays come packed with high expectations. Norman Rockwell and Martha Stewart have irreversibly colored our visions of what the holiday season "should" be, making it difficult to not be disappointed by reality. Lower your expectations. Try for a "good enough" holiday season. By keeping expectations realistic and focusing on what's really important to you, you may just find that your "good enough" holiday turns out to be "pretty great" after all.

4.) I can't stand my family! This is the time of year when families feel compelled to come together in peaceful, loving harmony—whether they like it or not! If your family is truly abusive, unpleasant or unhealthy for you, know that you have the choice to decline spending time with them. If like most families, however, they are just mildly irritating, boastful, opinionated or hypercritical, use this opportunity to practice your coping and communication skills. Pick your battles—do you really want to argue about politics or ancient slights over turkey and stuffing with the whole family witnessing? Let it go for one day. Walk away and take a break if that works best. If you need to sort through personal and ideologic differences, find another time when you can discuss these things privately. Set the tone by doing your best to not criticize others and to accept your family for who they are-likely imperfect and often times annoying-but family nonetheless.

5.) I'm lonely! On the flip side, this season can often be a time when the absence of family or social connections becomes highlighted. If you are far from family, try creative ways to connect with them like email, videos or Skype. If you find yourself feeling alone, look for local holiday concerts or community events to attend. Find out if any co-workers may also be far from family or without holiday plans and have a potluck. Consider spending your time giving to someone else in need. Volunteer at a local soup kitchen or food pantry or distribute gifts to needy children. Helping someone else makes you feel good and can broaden your social relationships.

6.) I hate crowds! I recall being stuck in an hours-long traffic jam one Thanksgiving Eve while my car radio blared Andy Williams' The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. The irony was not lost on me. Sometimes you just have to laugh. The traffic, crowds and interminably long lines are, unfortunately, as much a part of the season as cranberry sauce and candy canes. But instead of frustration or anger, try humor, kindness or mindfulness. If you're stuck in traffic, use the time to call an old friend and catch up. If you're waiting in line, strike up a conversation with someone else waiting. If the crowds are rattling your nerves, take the opportunity to notice the sights and sounds around you. Take deep breaths and try to relax, accept that this is an inevitable part of the season but only a temporary inconvenience.

7.) I have too many parties! The holiday season is packed with cookie exchanges, work parties and school plays. It can be entirely overstimulating. Remember that it's okay to say "no" to some things. Choose wisely. Don't spend your time at a party with people whose company you don't really enjoy when you could be home with your family or making a dent in your holiday shopping. Friends and family will understand if you can't attend every social gathering.

8.) I'm exhausted! The late-night parties, alcohol and over-indulgence in holiday sweets can leave you feeling tired, sluggish and guilty. Make a pledge to have a fun but healthy holiday season. Be sure to get plenty of rest during this stressful time. Be mindful of your alcohol consumption. Watch the carbs-have one cookie instead of three, don't go back for a second helping of mashed potatoes and gravy. And, as best you can, try to maintain an exercise schedule during these busy months. Take the time to take care of yourself and you'll have more energy to enjoy all that the holidays have to offer.

9.) I haven't accomplished anything this year! As the New Year nears, we begin to take stock of the past months and may feel down over unmet goals. Perhaps you didn't lose the weight or didn't get that promotion at work or the garage remains a mess or your files disorganized. It's great to set goals for yourself, but it's a reality that they are not always met within the timeframe we had hoped. Rather than feeling down about what you didn't do last year, take this time to re-evaluate. Why didn't these things get done? Are these goals still important to you? If so, what could you do differently in the New Year to meet them? Regroup and reenergize by focusing on the future, not ruminating on the past!

10.) It's just too much. If you find that you just can't cope with your anxiety or sadness, be sure to get the help you need. The holidays can be a very difficult time. If you are feeling overwhelmed by your feelings, talk to your doctor or find a mental health professional. This is the time to make resolutions for the New Year and now is the perfect time to address any issues with anxiety or depression that have been plaguing you. If you need assistance finding a mental health provider, talk to your doctor, look at the find-a-therapist section on this website or go to www.academyofct.org, www.adaa.org or www.abct.org for help.

Best wishes for a peaceful and joyous holiday season and a calm and happy New Year!


For more information or assistance, see my book 10 Simple Solutions to Worry.

 

 

Pamela Wiegartz, Ph.D., is the Director of CBT Services and Training in the Department of Psychiatry at Brigham and Women's Hospital and on faculty at Harvard Medical School. more...

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