The Most Anxious Time of the Year


Why the holidays reveal our deeply rooted anxieties... and how we can make them a bit less miserable.

This blog post is about the effect that the holidays can have on anxiety and about what can be done to cope with this anxiety. 

Disclaimer: I am a therapist specializing in the treatment of anxiety - and although what I have to say below may be of benefit to many who suffer from anxiety, it is not intended as medical advice. Be aware that the symptoms of anxiety can sometimes be the result of other medical conditions. As such, if you suffer from anxiety, you should consider both visiting your primary care physician (to screen for other medical issues) and seeking treatment from a qualified psychotherapist (to overcome any anxiety that is psychological in origin).

Happy Holidays

The holidays are supposed to be a joyous and relaxing break from our lives. They are meant for spending quality time with our family members, away from the stress of work and other obligations. They are supposed to be "happy." However, this image of the holidays is often more comical than accurate. For those who suffer from anxiety, the holidays can prove to be one of the most challenging times of the year.

There are a number of reasons for amplified anxiety during the holidays: long standing tensions between family members stand to be rediscovered; old ways of thinking get triggered and lead us to feel and act like past versions of ourselves; the extra expenses at this time of year compound one another. These and other issues often conspire to make the holidays remarkably stressful. 

It is no surprise then that January and February are two of the busiest months of the year for therapists and counselors. After the holiday lull, the therapists in Seattle experience an influx of calls from those seeking to do something about anxieties recently rediscovered through holiday gatherings. The interest is often so great that many therapists and counselors end up with packed schedules by February and have to create waiting lists for new clients. 

Choosing to go to therapy is a good option for many. However, it is a long term solution - something certainly not intended as a short term fix to the intensified stress and anxiety of the holidays. Below, we will look at some reasons why the holidays are uniquely stressful and discuss an effective mindfulness based strategy for dealing with the attendant anxiety in the moment.

Interpersonal Tensions

Anxieties are often driven by unresolved interpersonal tensions. These tensions usually arise between individuals who play important roles in each others’ lives. Not surprisingly, they are most commonly found between parents and children, between romantic partners, and between siblings. These tensions take time to develop, but can stay entrenched for decades if they are not addressed in good faith. This helps explain why many interpersonal tensions are carried over into adulthood from childhood and adolescence. 

Close proximity and time are the primary factors involved in bringing out these tensions. When we spend substantial amounts of time with the important people in our lives, we set the stage for these tensions to be revealed - or developed. 

Reverting to Old Patterns

The holidays can also trigger old ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. These patterns may remain dormant for years, but are able to manifest automatically in the right settings. This is because the neural pathways involved in producing these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are often still in place - requiring only the right situational trigger to activate them.

This helps explain why so many people feel like they are reverting to their “high school self” when they return to their hometown for the holidays. Familiar surroundings and familiar people are the most common triggers for this phenomenon. At the limit, for those who have become comfortably adjusted to a new way of life in a new place and around new people, reverting to old patterns in this way can produce an identity crisis.

Everyday Anxiety Triggers

While the above phenomena play an important role in explaining why (often deeply rooted) anxieties get revealed during the holidays, other more everyday reasons for increased anxiety are also frequently at play. These everyday triggers of anxiety include being in social settings (especially those in which one might feel judged), being in places with lots of sensory stimulation (noise, light, etc.), dealing with strains on financial resources, being away from work, travelling, and so forth.

For example, socially anxious introverts often find themselves facing a dilemma during their holiday gatherings. Attending these gatherings can mean several hours, or even days, during which it seems unacceptable to bow out and take some “me time.” They feel increasingly uncomfortable, but are often not willing or able to extricate themselves from the situation out of fear of being judged.

At most other times during the year, a socially anxious person could easily excuse themselves and leave. However, during the holidays they feel trapped. This feeling of being trapped manages to come along also with the other triggers listed above. That is, during the holidays, these triggers are relatively unique insofar as they are all more or less inescapable.

A Holiday Mindfulness Practice

Although it can be difficult, making room for yourself during the holidays is a necessity. If you can, take a break from the festivities, take some time for self-care, and try to show yourself a bit of compassion. Like most people, you probably love doing certain things during the rest of the year. To relieve stress, it can be helpful to identify and try to make room for these same things during the holidays. For some, this is going on a walk and listening to their favorite album. For others, it can mean physical exercise, meditation, reading the paper at a coffee house, journaling, and so forth. The point is to do something that you like, at least momentarily, instead of carrying on only doing what you think you should be doing.

Even if you can’t get away, just stepping back internally from your distress can be helpful. What does it mean to step back internally? The idea here is to remind yourself that, when you notice that you're feeling stress or emotional discomfort, that you can improve how you feel if you adopt the right approach toward your discomfort. An example of this approach is laid out below:

To try this, first see if you can find the discomfort on a felt level - as a bodily response to the situation. Notice not just that you are uncomfortable, but try to step back from that discomfort and examine it. Notice that it has a particular character that you can appreciate by detaching yourself from it. You can focus on it like you might focus on a particular color or texture. Try to view these felt sensations of discomfort, as they arise in your body, as if you were observing them from a distance. Try to notice and be curious about them. Let yourself appreciate them rather than trying to "do something" about them.

If you want to go even further with this approach you can incorporate some mantras (mental scripts). I’ll provide three that typically work well. When you’re ready, say to yourself slowly, in your head if you have to, the following three mantras in order.

First: This is a moment of suffering. This is difficult. This is tough. This is not easy.

Second: Suffering is part of living. It is common to all of humanity. Many other people feel this way. We all struggle in our lives.

Third: May I be kind to myself? What do I need? May I accept myself as I am? May I give myself the compassion that I need? May I forgive myself? May I be strong? May I be safe?

Finally, and especially if you're having trouble doing the previous part, imagine that a dear friend or loved one had a similar difficulty as you. What would you say to this person? See if you can offer the same words, the same message, to yourself.

Feel free to adjust the three mantras as you find it helpful to do so.

Other things that you can incorporate into this mindfulness practice are 1) telling yourself the situation, what it is that is happening in concrete terms; 2) realizing what you're feeling using words that really get at what you feel; 3) uncovering self criticism by looking for "should" language - for example: "I shouldn't feel this way"; 4) trying to understand yourself by asking “why might a good person feel this way?”, “why might it be okay to feel this way?”, and so on; 5) having the feeling. That is, just letting yourself have it. Let it flow through you. See if you can reduce the sense of tension by accepting rather than fighting it.


Thanks for tuning in Seattle!

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