Taking a Holiday from Holiday Anxiety

3 Strategies to Focus on Well-being Instead of Worry

Holiday dinner table
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The word holiday is defined as a day of festivity when no work is done. But if you or someone you know suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) or another type of anxiety disorder, holidays tend to involve plenty of work.

The winter holiday season -- from Thanksgiving through New Year's Eve -- can be full of fun or fraught with fear. Attending large family gatherings, spending time with colleagues (or strangers) at holiday parties, traveling, and giving gifts can be stressful, at best, and can contribute to lower mood or higher anxiety, at worst.


If your holiday vision is trimmed with worry instead of tinsel, consider three strategies to help bring your well-being back into focus:

  • Cure yourself of the common worry cold, the “shoulds.” If you have a case of the “shoulds” – a snapshot of how the perfect holiday ought to be that is rooted more in fantasy than reality – then you are bound for disappointment. “Should” statements are a type of cognitive distortion. These beliefs tend to have a moral undertone; they narrowly define what is “right” and anything that violates this definition is “wrong.”

For example, if your siblings are traveling in for the Thanksgiving with you and your nearby aging parents you might be thinking, “My siblings should really be helping out my parents more.” If this expectation leads to anger, resentment, and avoidance of conversation with them at your family gathering, then it is creating problems for you.

You might instead try to reframe this belief as a wish: “I wish my siblings lived closer and were able to help more.” It is possible that reworking your initial thought will help you not only to feel better, but to think constructively about how your siblings can be more helpful from afar, and to focus on enjoying the time you have with everyone together.

  • Concern yourself with concerns that are within your control. Will Christmas dinner be peppered with critical comments from your cousin? Will guests arrive on time for your Hanukkah gathering? And will they like the meal you have prepared? Will there be anyone you’ll enjoy talking to at your friends’ New Year’s Eve party? None of these worries are actually within your control. Your cousin might be critical, your guests late, your food disliked, and your friends’ party dull – and few, if any, of these outcomes will have anything to do with you.

Instead, focus on that which you can control. Do the things leading up to the holidays that will help you to relax, to put you in a good mood or keep you from being overly critical. Plan so that your travels are as stress-free as possible – confirm travel details in advance, make a playlist of great music to distract you from worries, build in a visit to see a beloved friend or interesting site if time with your family will most likely be taxing. Identify some topics that would be easy to talk about or ask about in a room full of new people – perhaps travel, movies, or books.

Don’t rely on alcohol or drugs to self-medicate your anxiety; these substances tend to make anxiety worse and can trigger panic attacks.

  • Remember to breathe. Planning to de-stress in advance of feeling stress can really help you to tolerate the ups and downs of your holiday season. This can take the form of a regular relaxation or mindfulness practice or impromptu belly breathing exercises. Giving yourself time to breathe in this day and age might mean opting out of events that would make you feel overscheduled. Or, taking a technology time-out to recharge your personal battery so that you can communicate as effectively as possibly with family and friends throughout the holidays.

For more information on Holiday Blues, listen to this podcast about the consequences of difficult-to-manage holiday stress. If you are concerned about helping your child manage anxiety, check out these tips for reducing children’s holiday anxiety. If, in the end, you are finding your anxiety increasingly difficult to manage this holiday season, then consider speaking with a mental health professional. You can search for anxiety specialists in your area through professional websites like the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, or Psychology Today

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