By Scott Neumyer
I used to love Christmas. Every Christmas Eve, my parents, sister, and I would take a short, 10-minute drive to my grandparent's house, eat until we were stuffed, walk across the street to church, and sing a few Christmas carols with the small congregation before going back to exchange presents. Just the idea of piling into my mother's tiny, red Dodge Omni around that time of year was enough to evoke the smell of pine trees and the minty taste of candy canes.
If all that sounds a little too It's a Wonderful Life, that's because it was. Our family ritual was the classic, white picket fence suburban Christmas, and I loved it. I vividly remember telling my parents that I loved the holidays because being together with everyone just made me feel happy.
The last 10 years have been a very different holiday story. If those first 25 years of Christmas gatherings resembled It's a Wonderful Life, the last decade has felt a lot more like Bob Clark's classic Yuletide horror movie Black Christmas.
Why? One simple word: Anxiety.
A little more than 10 years ago, normal, everyday situations – like going out to eat or standing in line at the post office – turned into nightmarish scenarios that left me drenched in sweat with a pounding heart and blurred vision. I was diagnosed with panic disorder.
I've spent the last decade learning, battling, and coming to terms with the fact that my life is a cocktail of anxious thoughts, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and agoraphobia. I've taken the meds, done the cognitive behavioral therapy, and read more books on this one topic than most people do in their entire lifetime. I still struggle every single day, but I've learned to live, work, and parent with my anxiety. And I'm proud of that. But the holidays test me every year.
This past Thanksgiving Eve, while sitting on the couch watching cartoons with my daughter and trying desperately to quell my growing unease, I posted a Facebook message that has become my new holiday ritual: "[This is my] yearly reminder to all that some folks have a harder time around the holidays because of things like anxiety. Be kind and understanding."
The response to my plea has grown every year. This November, 94 people "liked" it, and nine people left comments thanking me.
We know the holidays can be an extremely stressful time. Not only are families preparing to entertain family and friends at large gatherings or packing for big trips, but there's also the added stress of not having enough money for gifts or time to get out and buy those gifts as well as so many other anxiety-inducing activities. Did I get the right present? Will they like it? How will I find time to spend Christmas with my family and also see my significant other’s family? Can I bring my dog? Will she feel lonely at home? These are the normal stresses most folks face.
What the holidays feel like when you have anxiety
But for those of us who also struggle with panic, anxiety, depression or other mood disorders, all of those stresses get cranked up tenfold.
Here's a little tour through the journey my mind takes as the seasonal soundtracks grow louder:
Whose house will I have to go to on Christmas? How long will I have to be there? Where can I park so that I can leave if I feel like I have to? What will I be able to eat during Christmas dinner without feeling nauseated? Can I bring my own caffeine-free iced tea because it's the only kind I will drink? What if I'm there past my usual bedtime? What if it's too hot in the house? What if it's too cold? What if some of the people there are sick? What if it's contagious? How can I avoid them if they are? Is it weird to bring my own plastic silverware because I don't know how well their forks and knives have been washed? Can I bring some for my daughter too? Is it weird that I thought to do that? Do I have to stay for dessert even though I won't eat any? How can I get out of this? How can I get out of this? HOW CAN I GET OUT OF THIS?
It is exhausting.
For the past few years after Christmas, I've joked with my wife that I need a vacation. By the time I've pushed myself to the very precipice of breakdown at the holidays, all I want to do on December 26 is crawl under the comforter, curl into a ball, and sleep until the new year.
The pressure of being a parent with anxiety
Sharing the holidays with my daughter Skylar, who will be 7 years old in January, has made the season both incredibly rewarding and even more daunting.
She adores the holidays. Nearly every day this time of year, she tells me, "Daddy, I just love Christmas because I get to spend it with my family." This kid is a gift and a great reminder of why these seasons mean so much to so many people.
Yet her very existence also means that all those things I worry about are amplified, because now I add the even bigger worry of whether I can keep it together so that she won’t see how anxious I am. I'm running a million scenarios through my mind that involve me losing it and not being able to care for her while we're out and about. It's terrifying.
Clearly I've made it through all those anxiety-filled Christmases past. I'm still here to write this story.
That's the thing about anxiety. It feels really, really terrible as it's happening, but when you've learned to live with and manage it, as I have, it always subsides. Whether it's from using techniques I learned in cognitive behavioral therapy, from taking medication to ease my mind, or from just plain gritting my teeth and breathing through it, the anxiety always goes away eventually.
And over the past decade, I've learned a few important ways to ease (or at the very least bear) my anxiety during my most stressful time of the year.
I stick to my daily routine as much as possible. This is tough during the holiday season, but even doing a few things from my daily regimen is helpful. For example, I wake up at the same time, eat the same breakfast, and write about how I'm feeling every single day.
I prepare myself to be anxious. There's no way around it. I'm going to have to go out, be social, and gather with friends and family at places outside my comfort zone. So I try my hardest to keep my self-talk positive, write down coping statement and strategies that help me when I'm most anxious, and remind myself that anxiety – while uncomfortable to experience – is okay.
I focus on my family. Considering the needs of my wife and daughter, and thinking about how I can make the holidays great for them, helps me get outside of my head (and those with anxiety know how important that can be) and concentrate on things that will bring us joy.
I remind myself that I am surrounded by love. Many of my friends and family members don't understand what's it's like to deal with an anxiety disorder on a daily basis, or how the holidays can make it worse, but they are still family. They love me and care about me, even if they don't understand me. And sometimes that's enough.
Will all these strategies work for you – or any of the other 40 million Americans who suffer from an anxiety disorder? Probably not. Some might and some might be useless. And I bet you have some great ones you could share with me. That's just how anxiety works — everyone experiences it differently.
But my hope is that you can take my personal experiences, reshape them to fit your situation, and find a way to make the holidays as happy as you possibly can.
It's hard work, but it's absolutely worth it. And, when all else fails, just set a date with your comforter for December 26. The warm, fuzzy embrace of your bed will always be there for you.
Note: The holiday season can be a difficult period for many people coping with anxiety and mood disorders, so it is important to keep in mind that increased, overwhelming symptoms may signal a need for more support and help. Reconnecting with your therapist or reaching out to a mental health provider is a great idea for coping well through holiday stress and into the new year.