Managing the Anxiety of the Holiday Season

Dec 8, 2021

The winter holiday season can be a wonderful time filled with parties and social gatherings with family and friends. Yet for some people, it can be a time filled with sadness, self-reflection, loneliness, and anxiety. The COVID pandemic has made celebrating more complicated, even as many families look forward to being together this year.

The Anti-Stigma Coalition will host a Facebook Live event on December 15 from noon to 1 p.m. to discuss Managing the Anxiety of the Holidays. The event is free, and all community members are welcome to participate.

Megan Andrews, LCSW-R, assistant director, mediation and employee assistance program, Child and Family Services will be a panelist for the event. According to Andrews, many factors, including unrealistic expectations, changing pandemic guidelines, financial pressures, and excessive commitments can cause stress and anxiety at holiday time. The days are getting darker and longer, and the holiday season seems longer than ever before.

“Our excitement and anticipation of the season can easily be overwhelmed by the insatiable need to do it all, be it all, and buy it all,” Andrews said. “Increased stress is known to motivate us to accomplish great things, however if left unchecked, can cause us to become overwhelmed and shut down.

“Certain people may feel anxious or depressed around the winter holidays due to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), sometimes referred to as seasonal depression,” she said. “Stress has an impact on our neurological system, at times making it difficult to concentrate, focus, and make decisions. It also has an impact on us physically, increasing headaches, contributing to excessive drinking/eating and sleep disturbances.”

Maura Kelley, director, Independent Living Center Peer Connections, lives with a mental illness, and says when she feels anxious, uptight, or sad, it is usually centered around what she calls stinking thinking.

“I often remember past unpleasant memories of the holidays,” Kelley said. “And I don’t want to be sad again because of my memories. Sometimes I just feel these feelings because I think I am trapped into being with others that I am not normally with.

“Then I think of how “should” my holiday be—thinking of that forever happy Hallmark Christmas where everything is pleasant and things are always smooth, and there are no tangible worries about money, diet, what to wear, travel, and there are beautiful romances always tied to someone getting engaged and so on. Then I have to remember that we just turned back the clocks and this is the darkest part of the year and having little light or sunshine affects us all in being down,” she said.

Kelley, who will also be a panelist for the Facebook Live, says she is grateful to have supportive loved ones and provides insight on how to help others who suffer with anxiety during the holidays.

“I have found for myself that when my loved ones are with me during the holidays, it is helpful to solicit my participation in the holiday. For people to give me the opportunity to help out, bring a dish, set the table, decorate the cookies and so on. When they ask me to contribute, I feel included.

“I don’t like it when family members ask me how I am doing or how I am hanging in there? I know they are trying to be supportive, but I really don’t like stopping my activity to just assess how I’m feeling because I am just trying to enjoy the moment,” she said.

Andrews offers the following suggestions to reduce this stress and enjoy special holiday celebrations:

First and foremost, take care of yourself physically, get sleep, eat and drink in moderation, and move your body. How you feel physically will impact how well you are able to manage emotionally.

Second, focus on consistency over intensity. Start small, take ten minutes each day to “turn off” your brain – through meditation, intentional breathing, diving into a book or show, intensely listening to a friend’s story, engaging in physical exercise or doing anything that gives you a break from what is going on in your head. Doing something small and easy every day will support your emotional management, freeing yourself to enjoy the season.

If you have a loved one with a mental health challenge, you will be helping others by taking care of yourself first. When you are able to manage your emotions, you will be in a better position to support others.

Maura Kelley offers her perspective on selfcare for people with mental health challenges:

For me, the most important part of taking care of myself, during this time, is to always remember I have choices. And I remind myself that it is very ok to practice my Assertive Rights.

Such as the right to say “no.” The right to not know the answer. And always knowing I have the right to leave at any time, no matter how it looks to others.

When I do this, which is pretty common, my family is very understanding, not judgmental, and supportive. Now it’s a running joke and they playfully take bets on how long I stay at the event. I also have an “easy out.’ My dog Ozzy is always welcomed at my family gatherings. And sometimes he is a great excuse to just take a break from it all, and go for a short walk, or to take time to just pet him and enjoy his company and loyalty to me.

Holiday Health Suggestions

Don’t abandon healthy habits. Don’t let the holidays become a free-for-all. Overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt.

  • Have a healthy snack before holiday meals so that you don’t go overboard on sweets, cheese, or drinks.
  • Eat healthy meals.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Include regular physical activity in your daily routine
  • Try deep-breathing exercises, meditation, or yoga.
  • Avoid excessive tobacco, alcohol, and drug use.
  • Be aware of how the information culture can produce undue stress, and adjust the time you spend reading news and social media as you see fit.

Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Find an activity you enjoy. Take a break by yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm. Other suggestions:

  • Take a walk at night and stargaze
  • Listen to soothing music
  • Read a book

Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores.

Mayo Clinic

If you have a loved one with a mental health challenge, you will be helping others by taking care of yourself first. When you are able to manage your emotions you will be in a better position to support others. You also could take a look at your blessings and privileges and find ways to share by giving your time, talents and other gifts. Consider clearing out your closets and donating items that you no longer use to a charity, volunteering, sending a note or card to someone that needs social contact, holding the door for someone, letting the next car merge with traffic or doing any act of kindness that sends positive energy into the world.


Megan Andrews

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