Health Matters: Anxiety and the Holidays
Do you look forward to the holidays? Not everybody does. Anxiety is one of the most common mental health challenges people face; in fact, in the U.S. almost a fifth of adults and a quarter of adolescents (aged 13 to 18 years old) suffer from anxiety in one form or another. For many, the holiday season leads to increased anxiety.
The holidays can bring on anxiety for several reasons. People get out of their routines. They sometimes feel obligated to spend time with family members they don’t enjoy. Others want to create an atmosphere of good cheer and provide nice experiences for those they care about, but do not have the financial or emotional resources to do so. For college students, December is often equated with final exams and for high school seniors, it’s time to apply to college. These are just a small sampling of the stresses that can come with this time of year.
So, what can we do? When our thoughts start to spin in an anxious worry storm, it’s hard to put things in perspective. Most people can’t simply think their way out of a worry storm because the brain has gone into fight or flight mode where our emotions make it difficult to think things through in a logical manner. Whatever we are feeling in the moment becomes our reality.
When we are under stress, it is easier to slip into catastrophic or “all-or-nothing” thinking like, “If the cookies are burned, the whole party is ruined.” Or, “If I don’t get my house decorated, I won’t be able to invite people over and the holidays will be ruined.” Or, “If I don’t buy my children the Christmas gifts they’re asking for, they’ll love me less and be unhappy for the rest of their lives.”
One way to combat catastrophic thinking is to take a slow deep breath and ask yourself, “Is this realistic?” Will the lack of a gift ruin my child’s happiness forever? Probably not. In the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, “What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” The truth is, no child ever died from disappointment. Christmas without the “perfect” gift is kind of like cold pizza. It’s not perfect, but it’s still pretty tasty.
A note about children and stress: children take cues from the adults they love and trust. When we stay calm and grounded, it helps them stay calm and grounded. Helping children appreciate the good things in their lives—things like family members who love them, good friends, their ability to run fast or paint pictures, etc.—helps them stay grounded and can calm anxious worries. It may help to remember that unless you are in immediate physical danger, anxious worries are about the past or the future. Being in the here and now (also called the present) is a gift. Coincidence?
If you find yourself struggling to cope during the holidays, consider making an appointment with a licensed therapist. We have all sorts of ways to help you feel more grounded and more peaceful. One of the best ways to take good care of those you love is to first take care of yourself. Get plenty of sleep. Eat healthy meals. Limit alcohol intake. Focus on the good things in your life. And if you need a little extra support, make an appointment with a licensed therapist. We’re here to help.
May your holidays be full of peace, health and love.
Ben Anderson, LCSW, is the director of Behavioral Health at MCHC Health Centers, a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.