It happens every time. As December is counting down, the holiday pictures begin to appear, gifts are being bought, and dining tables start to be set. The first shopping trip in each direction inevitably triggers a concern, including fear of disappointment, or feeling overwhelmed by a check-list of details. This reaction usually lasts in one’s mind for the rest of the month, as positive thoughts about the season are sapped by that “what if” feeling. And all of it is tinged with underlying anxiety.
Around Thanksgiving, one’s concentration generally returns to the task at hand. But most of us carry some sort of anxiety or mental image of holiday events with us, that our minds tend to repeat—often day after day.
Believe it or not, you’re not alone. For every person who has helped themselves to the butter knife in between meals, tens of thousands more feel the same way. In most cases, however, social anxiety doesn’t let you get by. The holidays are a time when many families come together to celebrate and help support one another. As such, a holiday battle starts weeks before Black Friday. This feels different, that’s because holiday anxiety involves more than discomfort on a temporary basis.
Your anxiety is triggered by your perception of an overwhelming amount of stress, worry, or the fear of a lousy experience, as well as the normal feelings of excitement, anticipation, and happiness you’ll feel for your loved ones. Even in the absence of an overwhelming effort to deal with the anxiety—which may or may not occur at any particular time of the year—there are common interactions that instigate it. These include waiting in line for things, maintaining online lists, asking “special” questions of the host, complimenting the host on decor or gifts, and looking forward to attending holiday parties.
A small act of distraction can interrupt a spiral of negative thought. “If I grab a candy cane from a corner in the store to stop the stress in my mind, maybe I won’t be that anxious anymore,” says Sara Mathat, Ph.D., an exercise specialist and relationship therapist. “You can benefit from a distraction.”
It sounds simple—but you’re probably more likely to tell your therapist, “I didn’t even recognize it!”
As individuals trying to return to a healthy emotional and mental state, holidays can be tricky times for anxiety. And rather than trust that this condition will dissipate as the reality of the season sets in, individuals may rush to change things, even be hopeful that their anxiety will be erased. Most situations tend to be more challenging than they seem.
That said, there are steps you can take before the first cold drink in the new year.
More often than not, your attention can be directed on the things in your life that offer some reward. The timing can be just right to take a holiday break, even for a day or two.
You can also stop limiting your view of the holiday season to a limited list. Consider this: If you have food allergies or dietary restrictions, what would you do if you ate a holiday meal? What if you were to have to face a big-ticket purchase that year? Is there any way of going about these problems without stressing about it?
Even if the buildup of worry is the only way you can see it, remember that there are things to worry about that are completely different. For instance, is there a relationship drama that could come to a head at any moment?
When you do wish to break away from the concerns of the season, be mindful of your time. Some rest and relaxation is the best thing you can do for yourself to restore your ability to be present.
That said, when you do consider it, the holiday season is about time with your loved ones. The challenge is to catch the wind from the stress right as it’s getting too much. And believe it or not, you’re not alone.
Many people say “happier people make better shoppers,” and you may have found yourself deep in the throes of holiday stress that you’ve never endured before. By recognising that your holiday anxiety isn’t going away, try one of these coping strategies.
It’s far easier to face the holiday stress we encounter as individuals, than it is to confront it as a country, let alone a culture. Just remember: the value of connecting with others through this season can soothe an anxiety too big for any other intervention.