A week before Thanksgiving my therapist told me that every single client that week had walked through the door with one complaint: The Holidays.
For those of us with round the clock anxiety, the holidays are the time of year when that anxiety gets taken up a notch. The knob gets turned to the proverbial “11” if you will, and the reason behind it can usually be pinpointed straight away: family.
Families cause even the most sane people stress during the holidays, and as decades of films have shown us, there is no such thing as a “normal family”. I’m sure everyone knows by now that the idea of a “normal family” is a bit of a joke, but I think that the real message here is that there is no such thing as a stress-free family.
The thing I have heard repeated as the number one tool to help combat holiday anxiety:
You have the right to say, “no”.
This concept is extremely difficult for me, I don’t like saying no. I don’t like people thinking I am generally disagreeable! Most of us also feel extremely obligated to participate in family events over the holidays, but if you aren’t feeling up to it or know that you will potentially have to deal with family members who aggravate your symptoms it is alright to say no.
Ideally, our health should be our top priority. Mental health doubly so.
Honestly the most difficult part of saying no to anything (for me) is feeling incredibly guilty after. My ideas to combat this?
- Send cute Christmas cards in lieu of attending festivities
- Bake or buy treats to send to friends or family
- If possible, schedule times to see the family members you’d like to see individually throughout December or January so that the potential crowd isn’t there
- Volunteer at your local soup kitchen/etc.
- Give the family a call on Christmas and allow them to pass around the phone so you can say hello!
If you’ve ruled out the family holiday altogether some great things to do instead:
- Go to the movies
- Eat out (I had sushi once on Thanksgiving, it was excellent!)
- Go camping or skiing
- Curl up by the fire with a good book
- Meet with other friends in the area that are also potentially spending the holidays alone -a casual environment will usually mean a less stressful holiday.
Alright, so the family asked, and you’ve already said yes. You’re going to the family event, but fear not! There are still things you can do to help combat the stress.
- Take the time to do something relaxing before the event. Sometimes this means driving into town an hour early to stop at your favorite coffee shop for a hot chocolate, drive around to look at Christmas lights, or go for a short walk. Anything that will help ground you a little bit will help with the nerves before that event, so try to plan ahead to give yourself that opportunity to calm down.
- Eat something healthy before going to the event, it doesn’t have to be much. This way your body wont have to rely on the cookies and other sugary treats that are inevitably going to be there. I am by no means suggesting not eating cookies at all, just that by having a healthier base meal earlier the sugar will hopefully have less of an impact on mood and you’ll hopefully eat less of it.
- Allow yourself a time-out (or many!). If things start getting too hectic and uncle Milton (though lovingly) begins to refer to your “mental issues” it is perfectly fine to excuse yourself. Find refuge in a bathroom, spare room, or go for a walk to help ground yourself.
- Try to avoid rocking the boat. There are topics that might send some families into a heated argument, whether that is family drama, politics, you name it. That might include the topic of mental illness, even if that has more to do with you and less to do with them. My suggestion is to stick to more family-friendly topics if possible.
- Have a “safety zone”. If you can afford it (and you are spending several days with your family) get a hotel room instead of staying at a relative’s house. Having a separate space where you can unwind and regroup can make all the difference when it comes to coping with family over an extended period of time.
- Arrive late or leave early. Or both! Putting in a brief appearance at a family event might be more realistic than spending a whole day (or more) at one. If this is the case, it is perfectly acceptable to make a brief appearance. Why not? In that situation, your family still had the opportunity to see you even if it was just for a short time.
Below I’ve included a few good articles about coping with holiday stress that are worth checking out as well, if that is indeed something that you’re having to deal with.
- Home for the Holidays – Tips for overcoming holiday anxiety and stress
- Stress, Depression, and the Holidays – Tips for coping
- Bah Humbug! – Bipolar and SAD tips for coping
- Tips for a Happy Holiday for GLBT People – Also helpful for anyone newly diagnosed with a mental illness
So there are two things I want you to take away from this post:
1. Families are stressful, but there are things you can do to help cope with that stress.
2. No matter what obligations you feel you have, it is always ok to say no.
And I hope that with a little thought and planning ahead of time the holidays stress will be a little less daunting this year!