It’s that time of year again. And by that, I don’t mean joyous holiday rituals or meaningful occasions with family and friends. In this season of celebration, I often see individuals struggling with an extra dose of anxiety.
The worst part is that many worry about anxiety itself, as if they’re somehow abnormal for feeling tense during “the best time of the year.” People think their anxiety signals that something is wrong with them.
So, while it’s not gift-wrapped, let me give you a holiday present. It is in the form of a basic psychological truth: It is perfectly understandable and okay to be extra anxious during the holidays. For that reason, if you feel anxious this holiday season, the first and most important thing to do is to stop judging yourself for feeling anxious! In fact, please celebrate that your body has a fight-or-flight system that can protect it from harm, keep you alert and attentive, and let you know when things are awry.
Along these lines, anxiety always happens for a reason. Think of it as your personal “early warning system.”
With this in mind, we can understand why the holidays are such a ripe time to feel anxious. There are many reasons for your warning system to go off during the holidays. Here are just a few.
Lower Your Expectations.
First, people often feel more pressure to make these times “the best ever” and picture-perfect in every way. High expectations are a perfect context for disappointment, and anxiety is a natural response when things aren’t going as we expect them to.
Listen to Your Feelings.
Second, do you have at least one toxic relative whose insidiously negative comments make you anxious? Rather than ignore your feelings, listen as your anxiety tells you that it may be time for a new way to deal with that person. Schedule a “sit down” to tell them how you feel, or work on developing a game plan for avoiding long conversations with this problematic family member.
Have a Game Plan.
Third, it makes perfect sense for people to feel stressed and anxious when they travel, especially when plans get interrupted. Some are frightened of flying in general, and others are uncomfortable in large crowds. But everyone’s resources are somewhat depleted when traveling since we often sleep less, skip meals and workouts, and fall behind on work. Instead of avoiding travel altogether or “white knuckling” your way through airports, let your anxiety serve as a self-care reminder. Travel will be difficult, so give yourself the gift of a strategy ahead of time to make the trip better. Meditation, deep breathing, even writing a self-talk script beforehand to consult mid-flight can all be helpful.
There are plenty of more reasons why the holidays are a time of high anxiety, but let’s get back to the main point: Rather than something to be erased or magically dissipated in some way, treat your anxiety as a reminder that you need to practice better self-care and find time to rebalance. Reduce other stressors or increase your resources.
To that end, if I have one piece of advice to offer individuals struggling with stress or anxiety (or depression, or pretty much any mental health concern!) during the holidays, it’s to increase and improve sleep.
Remember to Rest.
I say that because there are direct physiological reasons. Sleep helps our brains and bodies to rest and rejuvenate and rebuild after facing the stressors of each day. It’s literally a no-brainer way to add to your resources in a significant way. I kid you not that I have seen patients go from severely to mildly anxious after just two good nights of sleep.
Why is sleep so powerful? Here’s one cool idea: Sleep helps us to accept that not everything is within our control.
By going to bed—and stopping to work for up to a full third of each 24-hour day—we inculcate the perspective that we can only do so much. This humble perspective is an extremely helpful resource, which we can draw upon in facing day-to-day stressors. Wouldn’t all of us feel anxious if we accepted that there are limits to what we can do each day?
Especially during the holidays, try to schedule at least seven hours of sleep per day. If you cannot make your bedtime due to travel—or if you have to wake up super early—make sure to catch up on sleep within one to two days.
Connect with a Loved One.
If I have one more piece of advice for thriving with anxiety this holiday season, it’s to try to connect with at least one other person. Our bodies are built in such a way that anxiety dissipates when we share our inner feelings with someone we trust.
The mechanisms here are actually the same as sleep. We may not realize it all the time, but let’s face it that all of us are vulnerable, and forging close relationships makes us even more dependent. That’s not a bad thing! On the contrary: When we humbly accept our need to rely on others, we can thrive with the perspective that we don’t need to pretend to be super strong and in control all the time.
For this reason, it is critical to ensure we have a safe place to be ourselves. If you have such a relationship—with a romantic partner or friend—consider yourself blessed, and when you’re anxious be sure to reach out to that person. If not, seek out a therapist in order to create those vitally important connections with others.
In sum, if you’re anxious this holiday season you’re in very good company. However, with a little self-care, some support from others, and acceptance that we are all only human, we can leverage anxiety to thrive.