When you think about the holidays, what is your first reaction? Take a second and take notice. Where do your thoughts go? What happens to your body? Do you feel excited? Happy? Overwhelmed? Sad? Anxious? Perhaps you feel all of these emotions? If so, you are normal! 

Anxiety isn’t bad. It can actually be helpful. Yes, you read that right. We are hard-wired to look for danger, potential threats, or oddities; it is actually crucial to our survival. Anxiety can move us to action. For instance, if you were a little anxious about paying your bills or having a place to live, you might look for a job to relieve that worry and stay organized in order to make sure bills are paid on time.  As a provider or parent, you may feel anxiety about the choices you make — choices regarding your habits, extra-curricular activities, and what you prioritize. That’s because you care about your loved ones who depend on you and want what’s best for them. In these cases, your anxiety acts as a steering wheel, directing you toward actions and decisions that will hopefully provide positive outcomes for you.

Holiday anxiety is a whole different entity, a category all its own. Often, anxiety around the holidays has to do with expectations (our own and those of others), that the holidays are supposed to be special and feel a certain way. Couple that with persistent messaging form retailers about how you should be feeling or what you should be doing, and you’ve got a recipe for major anxiety. 

This time of year also evokes unwanted feelings and memories. Holidays often involve gatherings with people who are difficult to be around. They seem to foster unspoken or unrealized expectations, traditions, and requirements that can freeze us in our tracks. It can be really difficult! This is all normal, too. It just isn’t any fun. It makes it hard to find the “special” part of the holiday and it’s exhausting.

The good news is that the holidays do not have to be this way; they don’t have to be so hard. The exact solution may be different for each person reading this, but here are a few ideas that may ease holiday anxiety:

  1. Stop and breathe. Relax your body. Get control of your thoughts. In other words, try to identify what your thoughts and emotions are actually telling you. 
  1. Discern if the anxiety you feel is helpful (moving you toward good action or away from something potentially harmful), or if it is unproductive (causing you to panic, freeze up, act unlike yourself, or have dark thoughts).
  1. If you find the anxiety is helpful, then move to action. Make a plan and execute the plan. For example, you can plan a budget for gifts and parties, schedule events with built in margin for the unexpected plans that will likely come up, make shopping lists, and decide ahead of time how you want to spend the holidays. When anxiety creeps in, refer back to your “plan.”
  1. If the anxiety seems unproductive, remember, anxiety wants to trick you into thinking that the problem is much bigger than it really is. Think of past times when you realized you worried for nothing. Those times when your imagination got the best of you and played out the worst-case-scenarios over and over, just to find that the reality was much better than expected. Try thinking up a positive, alternative ending, and focus on that image.
  1. Remember, emotions are events that will pass. You don’t have to fight them. Just hold them while you take in air and then let them go. Refocus on the task at hand. People say, “I’m anxious,” but YOU are not the anxiety! 
  1. Check yourself for thinking errors. These might come in the form of: catastrophizing, filtering out the positive, mind-reading, fortune-telling, labeling, emotional reasoning, and all-or-nothing thinking. When you recognize any of these types of thinking, understand that your emotions might be leading the way, not actually facts or logic. Be cautious about making decisions based on this reasoning. 
  1. Reduce your stress! Eliminate extra, non-essential calendar items. Accept what you cannot change and move forward with what you can do. Set things aside that can wait. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You can’t do it all and you don’t need to.
  1. Assess what distresses you about the holidays. You are an adult, and unlike some of the holiday chaos that may have been part of your past, you can decide on things for yourself now. Maybe you can change how you experience this season? Explore critically what your own values are. What do you enjoy? What have you always done that isn’t working anymore? What is a realistic and manageable budget for this season? What is your actual, personal energy level and bandwidth this season? What are your current circumstances and how do they contribute to your overall well-being or health? Once you have answered some of these important questions, you will be better equipped to set realistic expectations for yourself this holiday season, even if it is not what you have always done in the past.

Life is fluid. We change. Our environment also changes, and so do the relationships in our lives. It’s okay to make the holidays work for you! Anxiety does NOT have to be the centerpiece on your holiday table this year.  Once you’ve self-assessed and come up with a plan, take a moment and notice how your body feels. Listen to your heart and then honor what’s true for you about the meaning of the holidays. May you enjoy a peaceful season. 

Written by guest writer: Marita Tiller, MA LPC

Licensed Professional Counselor 

Specializes in Trauma, EMDR and Anxiety