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Holiday Anxiety Prep!

Updated: Mar 25, 2022

The holidays are quickly approaching and if the idea of spending extended time with loved ones ever gives you anxiety, you are not alone. We are often conditioned to feel guilty if we are not purely excited to see our family, as if feeling any kind of anxiety, sadness, anger, or dread is a character flaw within us. The truth is, settings with our families and loved ones can be places of extreme emotional volatility in part because of that closeness we have with them, as well as the long-standing history that can be triggering. This blog post attempts to give a few ideas that one could implement ahead of the holiday season to try to quell some of the controllable parts of that anxiety and leave you feeling more prepared.

1) Consider THERAPY- I know, it's a very groundbreaking tip coming from a therapist herself ;) BUT many people end up taking “breaks” from therapy during the holidays due to busy schedules, and often reflect back later that the holidays were a time that they needed EXTRA support, not less! Use therapy to process those complex feelings that can arise with family, learning methods of acceptance and distress tolerance when applicable, but also ways to advocate for needed change! Additionally, the holiday season can often be sad for many individuals, and that sadness can get lost in social settings geared towards joy. Having a space to process what the holidays themselves may bring up for you is important.

2) Make a PLAN- If going into a holiday gathering leaves you feeling anxious, coming up with a plan and sticking to it may be helpful.

· Decide when you are going to arrive, and when you are going to leave.

· Make sure that you have transportation to get back home so that you don’t inadvertently get stuck staying later than desired (ie. riding with someone else who may stay later).

· Decide who you do and don’t want to spend extended time talking to, as well as who you do and don’t want to sit next to!

· Ask a trusted someone to be a “buddy” to you during the day, who is clued in on your plan and can help support you.

· Take BREAKS- go on a short walk, go up to a quiet room and close the door, play a game on your phone or look at fun pictures/videos, pet an animal in the house, close your eyes and breathe slowly if that feels helpful to you… you get the drift! Do something that makes you feel re-centered when you notice anxiety surging.

· Decide ahead of time whether indulging in alcohol is wise… in terms of feeling emotionally overwhelmed, it generally isn’t recommended, but think about your limits prior to arriving if you do decide to partake.

3) Say NO!- Having boundaries around our loved ones is always important! Boundaries are less about telling someone “what they need to do”, and more about letting someone know what it is you’re hoping for, and what YOUR behavior will have to look like in instances where that is not possible. Many people struggle with guilt around setting and holding boundaries, but boundaries are designed to promote closeness, not distance. We genuinely WANT to be close to others when our boundaries are respected, and we feel safe and comfortable. Boundaries are not meant to punish, but to make connections feel good. Examples of boundaries may include: whether you stay at a loved one's home or a hotel, what time you come to gatherings and what time you leave gatherings, certain topics that may be “off-limits” (ie. Politics, religion, money, sex/your love life, etc.), what group activities you’re willing to participate in and which you are not comfortable with, etc.

4) Keep up with “The BASICS”- Self-care often goes by the wayside during the holiday season as we get busy and worn out. Engaging in things that make you feel GOOD and bring you joy is important during these times, as they help buoy us against stress. For those familiar with DBT, the acronym ABC PLEASE from Emotion Regulation can point you in the direction of some useful tips to make sure you are taking care of the basics.

Accumulate positives- Mindfully engage in things that you enjoy! Think of this as a deposit in your mental bank account. If you google “DBT’s Big List of Positive Events” you will find 100s of ideas.

Build competence- Mindfully engage in something that makes you feel CONFIDENT and/or COMPETENT. This can be something you already do well (like puzzles), or something you are growing in your ability to do (like chess). It is important for us to feel confident and competent in our lives, especially when faced with situations that leave us feeling uncertain or unsure.

Cope ahead- If you are preparing to engage in a stressful holiday event, plan for success by setting up soothing/helpful experiences for yourself BEFORE and AFTER the event. For example, someone may go on a walk prior to a family dinner and arrange to have a phone call with a trusted friend afterward to decompress.

Treat Physical ILlness- Take care of your physical body during the holiday season and beyond. Make sure you are keeping up with your yearly appointments and go to the doctor if you are feeling ill or in pain otherwise. Take your prescribed medications daily as prescribed. Make sure you are showering, brushing your hair and teeth, washing your face, and wearing clean clothing.

Balanced Eating efforts- Eat regular, healthy, balanced meals and snacks. This can be hard during the holiday season with the rich foods offered at parties, so attend to this especially in your own time if you plan to indulge! Sugar and caffeine intake are known to have impacts on mood specifically.

Avoid mood-altering substances- Avoid engagement with substances that can negatively alter your mood. Consider your relationship with alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, sugar, marijuana, or any other illegal substance. Also, consider if you are using any prescription substances not as prescribed. Many people can turn to substances during the holidays to cope and feel more comfortable. Some family systems also have a culture around substance use where many individuals may be utilizing substances- stay aware of the possible difficulties this could bring about in an already stressful environment.

Balance Sleep efforts- Get the proper amount of sleep for your body. Attempt to stay on a sleep schedule if possible, going to bed and rising around the same time. This can be hard with evening holiday parties, but try to keep consistent or get back on track when you can.

Exercise regularly- Move your body in ways that feel safe and good. Check with your doctor prior to engaging in a new exercise routine, but the common suggestion is at least 30 minutes per day of moderate physical activity to keep healthy!

I hope you have a happy and healthy holiday season, and I hope these tips have provided some small ideas on how to actively work to achieve that and more.

Written by: Kelly Birkhold, LCSW (offering individual, couples and family work at Houston Therapy as well as DBT skills training 1:1)

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