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Holiday anxiety: the only present you can more reliably expect from your family each year than new socks.
Every holiday season, many of us experience holiday anxiety whether or not we have to deal with holiday events. And while family may not be the root of yours (although, we’re as excited as anyone else to receive everyone’s favorite holiday gift this year — the gift of politics at the dinner table), it likely belongs to a common group of anxiety sources that affect people as the time for vacations approaches.
Maybe your boss always pushes everyone to “make up for the time we’re going to lose” with those federally mandated holidays.
Maybe your aunt always asks inappropriate questions about your relationship status, and you’re already wincing at the thought.
Maybe your new partner is going to be meeting those crazy people you share genetic code with for the first time.
Whatever the cause of your holiday anxiety, it’s entirely valid — and most likely not preventable.
So, what do you do about holiday anxiety? There are actually quite a few ways to reduce and restrain those anxious feelings, even if Aunt Karen already hit the family group chat with, “Can’t wait to hear how dating is going!”
But before we deliver those tips and tricks, we’re going to need to give you some context — specifically, a look at why holiday anxiety happens.
Then you’ll have the tools you need to actually do something about it.
For reference, anxiety (sometimes called generalized anxiety disorder) is a mental health disorder characterized by a pattern of anxious thoughts, feelings and other anxiety symptoms that affect your quality of life.
We all get anxious from time to time, but what makes disordered anxiety different is that there’s no specific case-based cause, but rather, a persistent or chronic state of your everyday life.
Holiday anxiety, meanwhile, is something less specific. It may be related to your mother’s inevitable comments about your weight, relationship or career choices.
It may be your father’s political rants while he has a captive, dinner-table audience.
It may be the financial pressures for gifts and from cousins asking for cash, the aunt who doesn’t seem to understand her questions are intrusive or even the sheer number of family members all cramming into one space for social events that gives you social anxiety.
At the end of the day, anxiety is just a fear of the uncertain — a looming threat to your comfort or safety.
Dread can fill this space, but so can unanswered questions. Questions like, “Is your sibling bringing that ex who drinks too much?”
And, as you might suspect, that makes it really difficult to prevent, the same way you can’t avoid seasonal affective disorder by trying to stop the seasons. Luckily, there are some ways to cope with it.
Coping with holiday anxiety should really be more of a proactive process than a reactive one.
If you make it to Sunday tired, stressed and overwhelmed, heading into the office on Monday morning is going to feel like you’ve somehow failed at having a holiday in the first place.
Many people believe they don’t have control over the holiday calendar. When everyone wants to see you, spend a wonderful time with you and demand your attendance, it can feel like the entire holiday is just a miserable slog from one obligation to another.
Instead, you need a plan — and some rules for yourself. We put together four great ways to look at the problems with your holiday anxiety and find a solution.
First and foremost, let’s face it: there’s no chance you’re going to do everything you want to do. There aren’t enough hours in the day.
Accepting this as truth does two things for you: it frees you from trying to do everything, and it empowers you to decide what’s most important.
No, you probably can’t skip the big family dinner, but if you want to grab a drink with your friends from high school, you could skip the pre-dinner drinks.
Alternatively, if you want to take a day off to just do things for yourself, structure the holiday time with that time already marked as busy for yourself.
One of the biggest sources of conflict during the holidays is often the stuff you don’t want to talk about or be told.
Setting boundaries can fix a lot of problems in family dynamics, reduce conflict and improve your self esteem.
It can take some time and practice, but over time, you’ll either see improvement or have a quantifiable reason not to visit next year.
We’ve covered more on this topic in our guide to Setting Boundaries With Family. You’re welcome in advance.
And while we’re at it, there’s more you should be giving yourself than time.
Holidays provide an enormous amount of pressure to please everyone, see everyone and give everyone else what they ask for during the holidays, but a little self-care is one gift you should give to yourself.
You don’t have to head out on a spa day or hop on a plane to Europe. Recharging with a little walk, some music or a favorite movie is more than enough to create some “me time” in between all the chaos.
We know — you barely have enough time as it is. But as much as adding an extra activity to your plans can seem impossible, doing a little volunteer work or adopting a family in need during the holidays can grant you some perspective.
And quick pro-tip: it can also be a great way to get out of those less-than-desirable family obligations, since no one’s going to criticize you for bailing on your sister’s inevitably dry turkey for the third meal of the weekend if you’re feeding others in need.
We don’t have control over other people, as much as we’d like to. Our parents will think and say what they want, our siblings won’t listen. Flights will be delayed, fights will not be delayed and snow will fall on roads.
Preventing the causes of anxiety is trying to control a very uncontrollable world — it’s impossible, even with the best tools. But you don’t need to prevent anxiety altogether as much as you just need to know it’s coming and practice managing it.
There are several ways to do this, either with anxiety medication or therapy, as well as practices like mindfulness and meditation. Other things, like getting plenty of sleep, consuming a little less caffeine and getting some early morning cardio (if possible) can help, too.
Above all, your best bet at reducing stress and anxiety during the holidays is getting a game plan together. While our above tips are a great place to start, another great place to start — the best one, arguably — is talking to a mental health professional.
If the holidays are almost upon you, you have a lot of preparation to do — more than just finding an elastic waistband for the meals or restocking your supply of edibles for the family gatherings.
You need to prepare your mind.
Luckily, preparing your mind doesn’t take a decade of study or a vow of silence. You don’t even have to meditate (although a lot of benefits of meditation for anxiety and other medical conditions or mental health conditions are worth pointing out).
We’re not kidding when we say that the easiest way to start seeing results isn’t taking treatment on by yourself, but engaging an experienced partner in your management team.
Their efforts, experience and wisdom may yield some options for treatment that you hadn’t considered, and unlike your grandparents’ advice on how to find a partner, it won’t be terrible.
The best part is, you can start speaking to a mental health professional while you’re traveling home for the holidays. Our online therapy platform is a great place to connect with mental health professionals, find the right one for your needs and start getting help wherever you are.
If you’re on the in-flight WiFi heading to see the family, you might also want to explore more of our mental health resources for additional information.
In the meantime get rest, take care of your health, mentally prepare for Aunt Karen and, if you feel overwhelmed, consider talking to a mental health professional.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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