It’s December again (how did that happen?). And despite your promise to not let anything get to you this year, you feel edgier by the day, are finding it harder and harder to sleep, and are snappy with your colleagues.
Are you suffering holiday anxiety? Why does it happen to you? And when should you be worried?
What is holiday anxiety?
Holiday anxiety involves feeling worried and panicky as the festive season looms ever closer. Other symptoms can include:
How can you tell it’s anxiety and not just stress?
While both stress and anxiety can have similar symptoms, stress has an obvious trigger. An event or experience has thrown you into overwhelm. Anxiety is less logic. It can hit even without an identifiable cause. This means it can feel far more out-of-control than stress.
Stress can, however, trigger anxiety. This might be why the holidays, with the stress of office parties, present buying, and family gatherings, is a perfect recipe for anxiety.
[For more clarification, read our piece on anxiety vs. stress.]
Maybe I’m just depressed?
The difference here is that anxiety tends to be very future focussed, with panic about ‘what will happen next’. A depressed person assumes what will happen next will be awful, and their attention often goes to negatively re-assessing past events instead.
But they are connected, as in this case it’s anxiety that can trigger depression.
[Think you have the ‘holiday blues’ instead? Read our piece on Christmas and depression.]
Why do I experience holiday anxiety?
As stated above, stress is a trigger of anxiety, and the holiday season is stressful. If you are already an occasional anxiety sufferer, Christmas, with all its social events, offers far too many opportunities for ‘things to go wrong’.
Plus it’s a time that many feel the stress of loneliness, for not fitting into the Christmas ideal advertising force feeds us of shiny, happy families.
But why do others navigate the stress just fine but you are left biting your nails and feeling like the world will end?
For starters, anxiety has been found to be partially a genetic trait. You might be naturally just more sensitive to stress and prone to worry.
Otherwise, anxiety tends to be connected to unconscious and unresolved trauma.
If you don’t usually have Christmas anxiety but do this year, it could be a recent trauma at play. If your year involved a big life change like a breakup, redundancy, or medical issue, it could be the culprit.
It could even be that you had negative experiences in the past during the festive season. Something like a parent promising to show up for Christmas then not, or a family member passing away, might be years ago, but still trigger anxiety at this time of year.
Often anxiety is connected to a childhood trauma. Something such as child abuse can leave you with long term emotional shock, meaning stress is more difficult for you to handle than others. You might also have core beliefs around things like feeling safe and loveable that the ‘happy families’ marketing of Christmas triggers.
How to manage holiday anxiety
Accept their is a problem.
One of the unique things about anxiety is the way it breeds more of itself. Worrying if you are or aren’t anxious leads to being even more anxious. Try saying out loud, “I accept I am feeling anxious” and see if you feel any relief, no matter how small. And remember – until you accept there is a problem, you can’t really deal with it.
Up your self care regime.
It can seem hard to do at this time of year, but do your best. Making good choices around sleep, exercise,and food tells your unconscious you are safe and cared for and also leaves you with more energy.
Be especially careful of alcohol and recreational drugs. Yes, it’s Christmas, and others might be indulging. But drugs and alcohol are proven triggers of anxiety. And if you are genetically prone to anxiety, substances alone can trigger anxiety disorder.
Say no if you need to.
Unlike depression, which can be alleviated by activity, anxiety feeds on overwhelm. The more situations and social interactions, the more for your mind to panic over or seek ‘danger’ in. Yes, it’s the holidays, but the party can go on without you, and your friend can find someone else to watch her kids. (Read our article on how to say no if you find it a challenge to set boundaries.)
Then choose wisely when you do say yes.
Obviously you do want to still try to enjoy the season. Try to be practical when making choices. Ask good questions, like, will this party/event/person make me feel good? Are their other at the event that maybe seeing at this time is not the best idea? Is the cost of the event actually in my budget, or will it leave me anxious about money?
Try proven anxiety-busting techniques.
If you feel you have no time for any of these, note that muscle relaxation can be done in ten minutes, as can mindfulness meditation, which can be made even easier by using a mindfulness app.
Is it time to seek support?
One of the worst misunderstandings about counselling and psychotherapy is that you should only seek it when you are in pieces. Seeking therapy earlier means you never have to get to such a point.
If your holiday anxiety worsens to the point you are unable to manage daily life, or if it continues for more than a few weeks past the New Year, reach out for support. Anxiety, if it goes on too long, can turn into anxiety disorder, which is harder to treat, or trigger severe depression.
If there are any moments you feel beyond coping, remember that even during the holiday season there are hotlines with kind, trained listeners on the other end, such as the Good Samaritans at 116 123.
Harley Therapy can connect you with carefully selected, highly experienced anxiety counsellors and psychotherapists in three London locations. Not in London? We now connect clients and therapists via Skype, too.
Still have a question about Christmas anxiety? Post below in our comments.