Simple tips on managing anxiety in the run up to Christmas
How to worry less and end this difficult year on a positive note
Posted Dec 07, 2014
Thoughts whirling too fast? Panic rising? Utterly overwhelmed? Me too.
2017 has been a troublesome year for many of us. A divisive President States-side, a Brexit-worn government here in the UK, the planet in environmental meltdown - and now we're supposed to end it all with festivities and fun?
For someone prone to panic (that'll be me then) the festive season can be one almighty trigger. Shops that are bursting with people, long car journeys in heavy traffic, bad weather and the dark - all these can lead to a worsening in symptoms of anxiety - palpitations, headaches, sweaty palms and flushing. Then there’s the prospect of having to spend days on end with tricky relatives, drinking too much to ease the stress and guilt at over-eating compounded by worry about those who are materially less fortunate…
Christmas has all the ingredients to make me behave like a fruitcake, as nervousness about costs jostles for head space with concern about elderly parents and fear of meeting all those social obligations. No wonder some of us are tempted to duvet dive until 2018!
Loneliness is emphasized by others' togetherness
There’s consolation however – at least I am not alone. Whilst my worries might not be an exact replica of yours, dear reader, and I appreciate not everyone reading this may celebrate at this time of year, I suspect that there will be overlaps for many out there, and some may well have worse to face in the days before New Year than me. Perhaps you’re struggling with the grief of losing a loved one, especially hard at this time of year, or the break-up of a relationship.
Here my friend Adam is a good role model. ‘Since my divorce and my parents’ death I’ve often spent Christmas on my own,’ he told me. ‘In the past I’ve received well-intentioned invitations from family and friends to join them, but I found that being on the fringe of other people's enjoyment only emphasized my exclusion. So I stopped trying to be part of other people’s celebrations and now I simply pamper myself. I cook a full roast, treat myself to the best wine, and afterwards I watch what I want on telly, with my feet up and a box of chocolates.’
Perhaps Adam is onto something. Lavishing time and attention on ourselves can induce guilt, and at Christmas it seems especially self-centered, as we’re supposed to be focused on others. But it’s worthwhile, even if it it’s simply a case of scaling down the expectations we have of ourselves. Perfectionism and anxiety often go hand-in-hand, and Christmas brings out that trait in many of us. As we struggle to be the best mother/father/daughter/son/wife/husband/friend, it’s important to remind ourselves that we have limited resources. Not just in time and money, but also in head-space.
‘Tis the season to be jolly, not perfect
The trouble is that striving for perfection is exhausting and unrealistic, and means we’re constantly setting ourselves up for failure. Yet, as I mention in my little book on anxiety, no one can achieve A* for everything. Even the greats have off days. Murray doesn’t win every tennis match (though he's the exception in that he has had a good year), Clooney doesn’t get an Oscar for every film, Mary Berry probably bakes the odd flop. So if even the greats have off-days, you might like to ask yourself what’s wrong with your taking a few miss-steps? Being average occasionally?
Let’s give ourselves the gift of being B+
When people say ‘be your own best friend’ they’re often encouraging us to be kinder to ourselves. Sometimes this involves lowering our standards, just a little. Alice from the online anxiety support group I founded in 2014 put it brilliantly. ‘I used to get very uptight at this time of year, and I ended up feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Now, I simplify everything. Just a few examples - two Christmas trees not five, one dessert choice for Christmas lunch not three, donating to our favourite animal charity instead of slavishly writing cards to people we don't hear from throughout the year. This saves a tremendous amount of time and energy. Even a few small changes can make a real difference.’
I joked that one Christmas tree was enough for most of us, and she laughed. But Alice’s example illustrates the point: that she had five trees indicated her standards were unhelpfully high.
Looking back, it strikes me that as a little girl I used to love every moment of the festivities. The stocking at the end of my bed, the presents under the tree, the turkey, ‘Top of the Pops’ on TV… So when – and why – did squeals of excitement morph into panicky palpitations? I know that as adults we have responsibilities and many stresses are unavoidable, but nonetheless how can we find ways to feel the thrill of celebrations once again?
It’s possible to re-frame agitation as animation
I’m reminded of advice a counsellor gave me when I was getting worked up before the launch of my first novel. ‘The symptoms of anxiety are very similar to the feelings we have when we’re excited. You might allow yourself to see that you feel excited, not anxious, in this situation, as then the chances are that you’ll enjoy the experience much more.’ I found this helpful, so this year, I’m going to remind myself that some of the symptoms I assume are anxiety might actually be excitement, and indulge in the pleasure.
Sadly, not everyone has a positive experience of the yuletide as a child, and sometimes we pick up anxiety from our parents. ‘Growing up, Christmas usually involved me in tears at some point, because I wanted it to be perfect … and it never was,’ says group member Tracey. ‘My parents were joyless. There was never any magic; presents couldn't be ripped open because we were expected to "save the paper"; we had no stockings, no letters to Father Christmas, no family traditions. We weren't even allowed to eat the chocolate tree decorations! My mother would spend all day stressing about cooking dinner and then announce that she'd lost her appetite. And my dad would say, "Thank God that's over with for another year" as soon as the last present was opened.’
Despite finding this time of year hard, it’s only made Tracey keener to make Christmas special for her own kids. If she occasionally ends up striving so much she gets stressed, who can blame her?
Tips on how to lessen anxiety over the holidays
Balance is key.
1. No one can do everything, so prioritize what you enjoy. If it’s cooking, perhaps focus on that; if you’re artistic,concentrate on decorations; if you're sociable, make time friends and family. But don’t attempt it ALL!
2. Delegate, share and scale down tasks – plus, for the sake of sanity, forego some things completely.
3. Allow yourself to make compromises – think two trees, not five, or whatever your equivalent.
4. Shopping arcades and supermarkets seem almost designed to bring on panic attacks – all those bright lights and people and beeping tills. When you can, shop online from the comfort of your home (there are alternatives to Amazon if you want them) and don't beat yourself up if one or two presents arrive late.
5. Don’t rush at everything. Take time to stop and appreciate the moment, and breathe. When you’ve put up the tree, sit in the quiet and dark and admire the lights, for instance.
6. Remember it’s OK to ask for help. I’ve an author event today and promised to take some food, but then I realized I couldn’t write this blog and cook. ‘Can you possibly make some mince pies?’ I asked my husband, and (bless him) he agreed. He’s good at cooking, I’m better with words; it makes sense to play to our strengths.
Finally, if, in spite of all I’ve shared here, you’re still really struggling to cope, I don’t want to make light of where you’re at. If this is the case, I simply want to wish you well and say I hope you come out the other side soon.