Holiday Anxiety

Some people know all too well how the holidays seem to make the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and grief even more difficult to cope with. Some people may not feel this same struggle, but chances are that they have friends, co-workers, and family members joining them for Thanksgiving and Christmas who appear to be doing well on the outside but the internal battle may be raging. We’re talking about Holiday Anxiety.

Over the next three blogs, we are going to talk about how to spot different degrees of some common symptoms of anxiety, depression, and grief. We will also give you some quick ideas about what you can do to help. If you are reading this and are currently suffering with these symptoms, we hope that this will give you some insight about how to cope and maybe even find language to express some of the needs/boundaries that you might have so that others might better support and comfort you.

Research tells us that 1 out of 4 people directly experience an ongoing debilitating mental health disorder, that affects their daily life functioning.

“One in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.

Treatments are available, but nearly two-thirds of people with a known mental disorder never seek help from a health professional. Stigma, discrimination and neglect prevent care and treatment from reaching people with mental disorders” (World Health Organization (WHO)https://www.who.int/whr/2001/media_centre/press_release/en/).

What the holidays feel like when you have anxiety

Scott Neumyer, writer for Psychology Today, struggles with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and feelings of panic:

“Here’s a little tour through the journey my mind takes as the seasonal soundtracks grow louder: Whose house will I have to go to on Christmas? How long will I have to be there? Where can I park so that I can leave if I feel like I have to? What will I be able to eat during Christmas dinner without feeling nauseated? Can I bring my own caffeine-free iced tea because it’s the only kind I will drink? What if I’m there past my usual bedtime? What if it’s too hot in the house? What if it’s too cold? What if some of the people there are sick? What if it’s contagious? How can I avoid them if they are? Is it weird to bring my own plastic silverware because I don’t know how well their forks and knives have been washed? Can I bring some for my daughter too? Is it weird that I thought to do that? Do I have to stay for dessert even though I won’t eat any? How can I get out of this? How can I get out of this? HOW CAN I GET OUT OF THIS? It is exhausting.”

Whether you personally resonate with Scott’s internal dialogue or you know someone who experiences anxiety (holiday anxiety), this is a very real description of what someone might be feeling and thinking. Depending on the level of severity, some people’s symptoms can potentially prevent them from being able to engage with any measure of comfort or ease in conversations or activities, and may in some cases cause them to feel like they are unable to leave their homes at all.

Below is a downloadable infographic that we have created to help you to identify different levels of anxiety and some of the common symptoms and signs of each level (some content in graphic from this source.)

How can I help?

If you have 16 family members coming over to celebrate the holidays, remember that statistically 4 of the 16 (or more) are currently struggling with some form of mental health issue. Know that everyone experiences anxiety differently and that because of this, there is no “one size fits all” tool to help. For Scott, he says: “I remind myself that I am surrounded by love. Many of my friends and family members don’t understand what it’s like to deal with an anxiety disorder on a daily basis, or how the holidays can make it worse, but they are still family. They love me and care about me, even if they don’t
understand me. And sometimes that’s enough.”

So, one thing you can do if you do not suffer with debilitating anxiety is to seek to understand. Look for these signs and symptoms. Ask questions of your family members to attempt to meet a need that they may have. Here are a few practical examples: 

  • If you know that group games worsen this individual’s social anxiety, set out a puzzle, some one on one game options, or offer to take a walk together with that person while others are involved in the group game
  • You might contact this individual before the event and ask if there are any reasonable accommodations or preparations that would make the day less stressful
  • If this individual has an addiction related to the anxiety (i.e. alcoholism), decide not to serve alcohol at your family gathering
  • If this individual appears uncomfortable (i.e. body language), respect their “no” and do not pressure them to participate. Follow up with them later in private to ask about what they may have been feeling
    or thinking, if they’re willing to share.