Managing Anxiety During the Festive Period
For many people, Christmas is a time where families and old friends can come together, where childhood memories are filled with warmth and joy. Some may not have seen each other for a long time, whilst others are welcoming in new members to their ever growing families. For others, memories of Christmas may not be as warm, it might be a fearful, upsetting time where the arguments never seem to end. Christmas may have changed, relationships may be fractured, and the adverts and music of Christmas may feel like a constant reminder of those changes.
Whether Christmas is one of your favourite times of the year, or your least favourite, one thing that is certain is that this year will be different due to the very nature of the pandemic we are all experiencing. This in itself may bring about some worry or fear, even if Christmas is your favourite time of the year. The uncertainty around large gathering’s, keeping traditions or catching up with old friends may be something that many people around the world will have to tussle with.
It might be helpful to look at what exactly is anxiety, before looking into tips on managing anxiety. For some, they will experience a nervousness, or feeling on edge, increased heart rate, nausea, sweating or a feeling of fore-boding as if something bad is just about to happen. Anxiety can help us in alerting us to danger and in terms of evolution, it was a necessary survival mechanism. A lot of people will talk about the fight, flight or freeze response, and recently, they’ve added in a fourth response – flop. In fight or flight, our bodies responses change in nanoseconds – our heart rate increases, digestion slows down, adrenaline is released causing us to tremble and our minds zone in on the threat, or scans our environment for potential threats. Again, this was very useful when we were cave-dwellers co-existing with lots of large hungry animals. Our perceived threats may have shifted from wild hungry bears to wondering if we are good enough for a promotion, worrying about finances, second guessing our abilities or being fearful of large crowds. Although the threats may have changed, our physical bodily responses to these have not – they cause the same physical response within our bodies. Some people will fight, some will run, some will freeze and some may even collapse with anxiety. This impacts our thoughts, emotions, behaviours and our physical bodies.
Although it would be impossible to write about techniques for managing anxiety that would be suitable to everyone, you might find some of the strategies below helpful in managing some of your worries, concerns or anxieties.
Coping with physical signs of anxiety
For some people, when they experience panic, worry or anxiety, their breathing changes. This can lead to light-headedness, dizziness or even visual changes. Controlled breathing can help, particularly if you struggle with over-breathing or gasping for air. Notice your breath, if it is fast or slow, deep or shallow. Place one hand on your belly and one of your chest, your hands should gently rise with the in and out of your breath. Try not to change your breath, let your breath flow naturally, exhale slow and gently.
Some people prefer to tackle physical symptoms of anxiety with a more physical strategy. Progressive muscle relaxation is a strategy that can be very helpful while not focusing explicitly on your breath.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Sit or lie down in a comfortable quiet surrounding
- Take a couple of breaths and allow yourself to be still and to settle
- Notice your bodies position wherever you are
- Focus your attention on your feet and lower legs, tense these muscles gently for 5 seconds before releasing. Notice the tensions and how it feels when this tension is released
- The key is to notice the difference between being tensed and the difference when the muscle is released.
- Continue the same practice for your thighs, bum, stomach, shoulders, neck, jaw and eyes. One by one, work through gently tensing and releasing these body parts.
Coping with cognitive signs of anxiety
Noticing your anxious thoughts can be difficult. Usually, this will take a lot of work, practice and effort – so don’t berate yourself if you find this difficult – if it were so easy nobody would experience anxiety!
Identify the anxious thoughts. Sometimes these are easy to notice as they may start with “what if” or “I can’t..” – sometimes recording these or writing them down can help us notice them. Ask yourself, what was going through your mind just before you noticed this thought, what are you afraid might happen? Look for evidence for and against the thought as well as how it makes you feel.
Situation: Your family have asked you to arrange Christmas dinner.
What is going through your mind?: I’m not going to be able to do this, I’ll disappoint everyone
How did that make you feel?: Worried 50%, Anxious 50%
Facts that support the thought: I’ve never cooked for a large group before, my kitchen is quite small.
Facts that provide evidence against the thought: I have cooked for my family and friends before, I have enjoyed dinners at families members houses in the past.
Outcome: Re-rate your worry/anxiety.
It may be helpful to ask yourself the following questions; if a friend had this thought what would you tell them? If a friend knew you were having this thought what do you think they would say to you? What did I think about in the past that helped me with these types of thoughts? Are there any strengths or positives for me in this situation? When I’m not feeling this way, how am I?
How we each experience Christmas will be very different, due to the nature of families and relationships but of course, also because we are struggling with a pandemic. We may not be able to come together and for some that will be welcomed, and for others it may be a devastating blow. Although some of the above may be helpful for managing worries, concerns or anxieties, if you are struggling then reaching out to a professional for support may be the best gift that you can give yourself this Christmas.
Meet the author
Dr. Lynda Naughton, Clinical Psychologist
Clinical psychologist working in Ireland with a particular interest in psychoeducation, trauma and spreading the message around mental health and mental health promotion.