An Anxious Person’s Guide to Making the Holidays Bearable

An expert's tips for how to get through all the crushing merriment that lies ahead.

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Dec 20 2017, 1:00pm

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There’s a cultish belief that there’s a right or wrong way to engage with the holiday season. The “right” way, as I understand it, is something like wearing itchy wool scarves to cut down Douglas Firs with your photogenic family, then going to a million parties. This time of year has the pressure of that expectation weighing it down for a lot of people already. For those with anxiety, that's further complicated by an actual fear of the stuff with the tree or the family or the million parties, plus the worry that if you don’t overcome it people will find you irredeemably rude, or that they’ll forget you forever. “Our expectations of the holidays are often that if we don’t do these certain kinds of things, then bad things are going to happen,” says David Austern, a clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health.

Anxiety remains by far America’s most common mental illness, affecting an estimated 40 million adults, or nearly one-fifth of the population. Whether you’re living with generalized anxiety disorder or suffer specific phobias, or are mostly anxiety-free until around mid-November, we’ve curated some of the more portable bits from the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy toolkit to help you get through all the crushing merriment that yet lies ahead. Basically, doctor-recommended techniques you can practice whether or not you have a doctor.

Anxiety, for starters, can feed a number of existing logical fallacies called thinking traps. Two of the more common ones Austern says people fall into, especially this time of year, are fortune telling (you know your office holiday party is going to be bad) and mind reading (because your coworkers don’t want you there).

The first thing you can do, he says, is acknowledge you’re jumping to conclusions. This is something a lot of people struggle to identify in real time, especially if they don’t know what to look for in the first place. I, for instance, am a big ol’ ball of anxiety and have been for some time, but it took a few years for me to realize that, and to recognize things like mind reading for what they were.

I’d thought that anxiety meant worrying that you left the stove on, and I never worry that I left the stove on. Anxiety comes in many forms, and I believe the holiday season amplifies pretty much all of them. Remind yourself you actually have no idea what’s going to happen, which may not necessarily be reassuring, but it’s accurate, and therefore helpful in putting your anxiety in perspective.

Austern also recommends decatastrophizing frameworks you can practice on your own. If your brain is convinced something bad is going to happen, for instance, try briefly entertaining that thought. Ask yourself A) what’s the worst possible thing that might realistically happen, and B) could you survive it? “Most often, we can,” Austern says.

None of this is one-size-fits-all, of course. A big source of anxiety over the holidays is travel; asking an anxious patient to think of the worst-case scenario and whether they’d survive it is maybe not a great idea if what the patient is anxious about is getting on a plane. But it would be a good time for them to remind themselves what the actual odds of the disaster they’re picturing actually are, which Austern says is another popular technique. (Airplanes, per this scenario, are basically the safest form of transportation available to us.)

If your anxiety stems from having lots of holiday shopping and errands, Austern advises a simple coding system like the ABC method. Isolate a small number of high-priority tasks you need to get done that day and label them “A”; then the stuff that would be great to get done today but can still wait til tomorrow, “B”; and anything that can go beyond tomorrow, “C.” Try not to start on any of the B tasks until you’ve finished the A.


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There are also some psychology-based relaxation techniques to help set you on the right path. Meditation, having been fully and rather irritatingly colonized by the wellness movement, I’m assuming you’ve already heard of. But there are several Austern recommends that you’re at least slightly less likely to have come across. The first is diaphragmatic breathing, through which you breathe more deeply and efficiently; it’s essentially the opposite of hyperventilating, the shallow, upper-chest breathing that often signals a panic attack.

Another promising technique is progressive muscle relaxation. This involves tensing isolated groups for about five seconds at a time, then slowly releasing them, focusing on different areas of the body in turn. Common areas of tension among people with anxiety are the shoulders, neck, and head, so if you’re curious but wondering where to begin you might start up top and work your way down.

Austern also suggests guided imagery, which is the clinical term for going to your happy place. Picture a place that makes you feel safe and comforted. For me, this is the 2009 presidential inauguration, but for others it's often something like a childhood bedroom or the beach. Concentrate each of your senses on recalling as much vivid detail as possible. You want your brain and body to think you’re there, kind of like how you salivate when thinking about food even if you’re not eating anything. Try this for about a minute just before entering a high-stress situation, like a big dinner with extended family.

“Family gatherings, especially large ones, can be tricky,” Austern says. “You’re seeing people you maybe haven’t interacted with in a long time, asking you what are you going to do with the rest of your life.” Austern says he’d still never encourage a patient to stay home—that’s the opposite of what he’s supposed to do—but possibly to practice on a few lower-ranked items first, or try going to an event for just a little while.

“The tendency when we feel anxious is to avoid,” Austern says. “Our brain is trying to make us comfortable in the short term. Our brain’s very happy to sacrifice long-term success for, ‘I want to feel good right now, I want to feel safe right now.’ So if we’re anticipating a dangerous or uncomfortable situation, it’s going to tell us, ‘stay home.’ Or, ‘get super drunk.’ Or do some kind of behavior that’s not going to allow you to feel the full brunt of what’s going on.”

Remember that your options are more nuanced than either attending your office holiday party or not. (Black-and-white thinking is another of the thinking traps). If you want to go for 15 minutes just to say hi, there’s no rule, social or otherwise, that states you may not do so, or that once you walk in you may not immediately exercise your right to say ‘nope’ and walk right back out.
Social expectations, especially for people with anxiety, can be so fraught we forget they’re almost entirely subjective. It’s fine, and not necessarily rude, to not talk to everyone and to leave early. A party isn’t over when the last person has left; a party’s over when it’s no longer fun, and if that moment arrives for you sooner than it does for Karen from Finance, it is okay to acknowledge it and go home.

The best bet, according to Austern, is to know your own values—family, religion, whatever comprises your particular reason for the season—so that when you’re unsure whether to sit something out or try to push through you can contextualize its importance. “I think the holiday season, ideally, really is all about values and meaning,” Austern says. “So you’re teaching yourself to ask, is it maybe worth that feeling of temporary discomfort to connect with your values?”

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