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Managing Anticipatory Anxiety about the Holidays

30 Sep, 2022

by Allison Hurst, MS, NCC, LPC

We live in a society in which the holidays seem to begin promptly after Labor Day. They arrive with the entrance of pumpkin spice lattes and then barrel forward until January, often leaving us tired, spent, and a little weary. Though there is a magical sheen overlaying ordinary life during this time, there is also a unique version of anxiety that presents itself alongside the merriment and wonder.

A friend recently invited me to an event on a Thursday evening in early December, and I immediately, with stomach in knots, wondered if the date was available.

Why on earth should a 30-something, suburban stay-at-home mother to an infant feel as if a Thursday evening months away is potentially already booked? Further, why does the mere thought of it put my stomach in knots?

I think it is because the world seems to be screaming at us, BE PREPARED.

For me, experiences of holiday seasons past create a sense of uneasiness when I think about December on the calendar. Each year I try to keep it simpler than before, to pare down the events and find the peace and calm reflected in the carols that are stuck in my head.

But without fail, the dates fill up quickly, we run a little wild, and suddenly there are few evenings left to be home and gaze at the lights we so diligently hung.

It is a strange phenomenon to both eagerly cherish the holiday season and also feel apprehension about it approaching.

The first twinkly lights,

The first Hallmark movie preview

The first day of sweater weather

They all bring an emotional high quite like any other.

Such eagerness for these picturesque holiday experiences can easily fuel my “yeses” to every event that crosses my path. But then when the time actually comes, I can end up feeling quite overwhelmed.

This is something I have been working on for a few years and I can honestly say that the more I simplify, the more I enjoy the holidays.

But simplification is not without effort, itself. So I find myself in early September weighing my holiday priorities already.

Simplifying the holidays takes fortitude and brutal honesty with myself about my future capacity for activities and tasks. I desperately desire to hold precious the limited time that seems to exist at the end of the year.

I have decided to share with you a few of the little lessons and tricks I have learned in this endeavor.

But first, let’s talk about the general unhealth that runs rampant during the holiday season.

I have worked in a variety of mental health service locations over the past seven years, including residential substance abuse treatment, pediatric inpatient services, and a variety of outpatient counseling centers. At each of these locations, the busiest time for new and returning clients is the month of January. Hands down. I have heard several working theories regarding this phenomenon, but my own opinion is that people tend to put many things off until after the holidays, including the management of their mental health. As well, the holiday season tends to exacerbate concerns that were already present. Increased time with extended family also can cause usually-hidden emotions and interpersonal conflict to rise to the surface.

The end of year also sees an increase in what medical professionals call “holiday heart,” a cardiac event considered to be caused by the excess of alcohol, stress levels / blood pressure, and salty foods during the holiday seasons [1].

Refusing to take care of ourselves during the holidays can have implications that impact both mind and body.

Many people who struggle during the holidays may not necessarily suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder, but could still benefit from either professional help or a re-assessment of priorities and general lifestyle changes. My encouragement to you is to allow yourself to seek these services when you need them, instead of waiting until you are weary and burnt out.

 

WAYS TO MANAGE ANTICIPATORY HOLIDAY ANXIETY

Level your expectations. Life is not a Hallmark movie, friends. It can be easy to think that we are “missing out” on holiday experiences that are not realistic to begin with.

If your home decorations look Pinterest-perfect, you are probably spending too much money updating them each year to maintain trends. Don’t forget that you see online is only a snapshot of the whole picture of someone’s house/ life/ family.

It is okay if you are not hopping from fancy party to fancy party. Media and marketing kind of have us fooled into believing that there are glam events aplenty and it is commonplace to attend several throughout December, all with new shiny outfits. In reality, most of us are not doing that.

Your family is still your family, even at the holidays. Remember that you can only control yourself. For all their flaws and successes, accepting that it is not your job to change your family members can help you avoid falling prey to grand imaginations of a perfect holiday gathering in which everyone suddenly behaves exactly how you would want them to. Your own growth is the only thing in your control. Accepting that people will still arrive as themselves will help you avoid bickering with people you already know disagree with you on hot topics.

Agree to a family plan of action. What are the 3 things that are most important for you and your family this holiday season? Focus on those, and agree that anything else is just extra.

Make sure to get your kids in on the conversation about this! What do they love most about the holidays? Their answers may surprise you and maybe even bring a sense of relief.

Keep it simple. Just because something is a tradition does not mean that it has to happen every single year. Not every decoration has to always come out of the attic.

Consider what holiday experiences “make sense” for your family. Where is there potential unwarranted wastefulness? What things are you doing that are not even really enjoyed for the person that receives them?

Consider this your ample permission to change what isn’t working. Make it make sense for your family without feeling like you have to do things a certain way or spend a certain amount of money just for the sake of a single photo or because you have always done it a certain way in the past.

Create space before you have the chance to feel cornered by your calendar

One year shortly after my husband and I were married, I decided that we would be holding the weekend after Thanksgiving as a “sacred weekend.” Neither of us was allowed to make plans for that entire weekend. We used it to decorate for Christmas, resettle, and take a deep breath for the rest of the year. We spent the weekend choosing what we wanted to do in the moment together instead of feeling enslaved to a schedule of events. It is still one of my favorite things to do when one of us is feeling a little suffocated by our calendars.

Maintain healthy rhythms when possible.

We will all inevitably be participating in some indulgences of various kinds throughout the holidays. Enjoying celebrations is nothing to shame yourself about! However, maintaining day-to-day rhythms can help you still feel balanced come January. It is easy to have an “all or nothing” approach and tell ourselves that we will return to baseline after the new year. But it doesn’t have to be this way! There is space on the continuum between wild abandon and self-deprivation. Consider how you want to find that space for yourself and your family.

For example, do not throw your family budget out the window for the sake of merriment.

Do not allow yourself to take on extra stress that you know is too much for you for the sake of “getting through the holidays.”

Continue to move your body in a way that feels good and energizing.

Drink water. Eat a vegetable when you can. Most importantly, pause to reflect on how you feel. What does your body need today? Use your biological intuitions to help you fuel yourself while you’re also enjoying richer food than usual.

Be honest about your emotional state with trusted friends and family; seek professional help if needed

It is important to note that there is a difference between experiencing occasional anxiousness and struggling with clinical anxiety. Talk to a professional if you feel that your anxious thinking is negatively impacting your ability to function in work, relationships, or daily life activities.

The same goes for concerns such as depression or other mental disorders. The “holiday blues” are vastly different than clinical depression [4]. However, both are worthy of bringing to a counseling session to

work through these feelings. You do not have to just survive the holidays. You can enjoy them again with support.

Remember that your identity as a good person/friend/parent/spouse/child does not rest on your application of holiday tasks

This will be my first time as a mother of a child who can really experience the holiday season, and this pressure to succeed in creating a well-rounded experience for my child is already so strong. It is easy to get stuck in the mindset of trying to out-task yourself for the sake of your family or friends.

That is absolutely not what this season is about. Take a step back. Take a breath.

And for all that is merry and bright, protect that December calendar with everything you’ve got!

References:

1. Brown, K. N., Yelamanchil, V. S., & Goel, A. (2022, February 16). Holiday heart syndrome. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved September 16, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537185/

2. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2020, December 11). Tips for coping with holiday stress. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20047544

3. Nowak, L. (2018, November 30). 9 signs that holiday anxiety poses real mental health risks. BrightQuest Treatment Centers. Retrieved September 24, 2022, from https://www.brightquest.com/blog/9-signs-that-holiday-anxiety-poses-real-mental-health-risks/

4. Raising mental health awareness during the holiday season. Discovery Mood & Anxiety Program. (2019, July 31). Retrieved September 19, 2022, from https://discoverymood.com/blog/raising-mental-health-awareness-holiday-season/

5. Rhue, H. (2021, December 1). The psychology of anticipation: Why the holidays never live up to our expectations. Byrdie. Retrieved September 24, 2022, from https://www.byrdie.com/psychology-of-anticipation-expectations-5203025

6. Rosenthal, L. (2018, May 30). Holiday heart syndrome. Medscape. Retrieved September 24, 2022, from https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/155050-overview