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Anxiety and the holidays: How therapy can help you take care of your mental health this season



Well, we’re back in the throes of another holiday season. Yay! (Or maybe NOT yay?) I don’t know about y’all but it feels like every year the holidays sort of sneak up on me YET AGAIN, and I’m left feeling unprepared and sometimes cranky about it.



I mean, it’s not like the months that include Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Ramadan, Hanukkah, and other major celebrations really change, but here I am once more, baffled that we’re closing in on Thanksgiving, with the big religious holidays following close behind.


scene of multicolored flags and Christmas greenery with a snowman in the foreground and snow falling

You might be one of the folks I know who LIVE for this time of year, and are well-prepared weeks (or maybe months; you know who you are) ahead of time and feeling zero stress. If so, congratulations! I’m sincerely happy for you, and hope that your expectations for your celebrations are met and exceeded. 


Then again, you might be here reading this blog because you’re feeling anxious or depressed at the notion of trying to manage or survive the upcoming holidays, whichever ones you may celebrate, and you’re not sure how you’re going to get through it all. Maybe you’re struggling just to get through a REGULAR day, never mind one with gifts or extra food or work parties or school dress-up theme days. 


I have good news for you: You’re very much not alone in this stress. SO many people report feeling more anxiety during the holidays, along with depression, panic, or just general overwhelm–it’s even gotten worse for some in the past few years instead of getting better. 


More good news: Finding a therapist or doubling down on the techniques you’re learning in your ongoing therapy can absolutely help you regroup and access ways to manage the holidays on your terms, with success. Here’s how to do both of those important things:



image of a woman with fingers interlaced against her face and eyes closed, with her head bent down

Acknowledge the stress. 

I know, I know, bah humbug, holidays are supposed to be exciting and happy and all that crap. Sure. And maybe there are glimpses of joy and you can connect to a few pleasurable aspects of the holidays from time to time. But it’s okay-and even healthy-to acknowledge if you’re not loving something about this holiday season, for whatever the reason. 


Manage your expectations. 


This goes along with acknowledging when you’re not feeling enthusiastic about the holidays in general, but specifically it’s critical to examine what you’re expecting to get out of whichever holiday is imminent, and REALLY decide what your capacity is and what you don’t have in the tank to get you through the party, or the dinner, or the get-together. 


(Introverts, I’m especially looking at YOU. Say it with me: “No is a complete sentence.” You are allowed to decline an invitation if you are out of energy after a busy work week, or if you just need to fill your bucket back up on your own with ice cream and a good movie.)


You do not have to apologize for putting your own needs ahead of someone else’s. (More about that in a future blog on self-esteem.) And hey-if you decline a party invite at first, but later decide you’d like to go, I’m guessing your presence will be enthusiastically welcomed by hosts and guests alike. 


Family dynamics.

(Deep breaths…we’ll all get through this part together.)


Multiple pairs of red boxing gloves strung on hooks against a white clapboard background

My clients often talk about how they’re managing the pressures put on them by family members at the holidays, and what they do to try to connect to the enjoyment of seeing some relatives-and to try to survive the agitation of being around others. This goes quadruple if you’re heading into the first set of holidays after you’ve lost a loved one, had a big change to your family like a birth or a divorce, or if you’re in a situation where you are far from family and traditions due to a relocation. 


This stuff is HARD in general to manage, and nowhere is that more true than the first holidays post-whatever-happened-to-you. Deep breaths here. More deep breaths.


BREATHE. 


You’re only in charge of you and how you choose to respond to your family members. You are NOT in charge of how everyone else behaves, or if they even show up on time. Or at all. Many times, anxiety and stress emerge from a perceived sense that we “should” be able to control someone or something else, and of course when we can’t, we get upset.


This becomes magnified times a thousand with the holidays, right? When in doubt, return to #1 on this list: Acknowledge the stress is there. Naming something very often will bring it down to a more manageable size, and then you can think about what YOU NEED most to cope as best as you can, especially with family. 


On grief and loss and the holidays: 


A man sitting on a couch with his right hand to his forehead and right leg crossed over left knee

Some of my clients have said that the first set of events they live through following the death of a loved one are a huge blur, and looking back the holidays (or birthdays, or other important experiences and dates) don’t seem quite as difficult as the person was afraid they’d be.




But what’s really proven hard for them is the SECOND series of holidays, when the realization truly crystallizes that this is how it will be forever, and they don’t have their loved one anymore. Whether this is your first holiday season after a big loss, your second, or your tenth, it’s all going to be difficult on some level. 


Taking time to grieve on your terms is always important, and that can look different to different people; no means of grieving a loss is wrong, as long as it’s not harmful to you. Some folks find it comforting to engage in a holiday ritual their loved one really enjoyed, and others may feel it necessary to skip celebrating a holiday or two altogether. That’s fine too, as long as you’re taking care of yourself and acknowledging the loss is hard. If you don’t already have a therapist to help you with the grieving process, maybe now is the time to find one.


ALCOHOL. (And other drugs)


For those in recovery at any stage, managing the holidays and the ten million offers of eggnog or wine or a cocktail can be tremendously stressful. While I’m not an expert in helping clients with substance abuse histories, I know that many are supported by sponsors in various types of treatment programs, and believe that this time of year is when connecting to your sponsor or your support system is absolutely critical to maintain sobriety. 


Surround yourself with people who care about you and who know how to encourage healthy choices, and who might even happily forgo their own indulgences in the service of helping you take more sober steps forward. Seek out substance abuse counselors or other therapists if you don’t already have one in your back pocket. They’re acutely aware of how much temptation the holidays hold, and bring zero judgment to the table.


Self care. 


Group of women in yoga poses, hands stretched up to the sky


LOUDEST FOR THE PEOPLE IN THE BACK WHO THINK THEY CAN SKIP THIS PART. 


Self care is one of the easiest but most neglected components of getting through not only a challenging/hectic/stressful holiday season, but also any other typical day that’s just harder than it has to be. And yet many of us are THE WORST when it comes to self care. Why is that? My favorite analogy to the people-pleasing overachievers (if you feel attacked, reach out and yell at me yourself, after which I will calmly point you back to #1 on this exact list) is that when the proverbial airplane is feeling like it’s going to crash, we’re all instructed to don our own oxygen mask before trying to help others.


It’s basic self care, albeit during a life-threatening situation. But the instruction remains the same: Take CARE of yourself. If you’re fresh out of ideas for self-care and are hesitant to talk to friends or family, maybe now is the time to find that therapist you’ve been meaning to seek out. 


The point:


Any holiday season can be wonderful and contain a thousand points in time to make happy memories, see loved ones, relax from work or school, and generally be a damn good time to celebrate and reflect on the past year’s events. But the holidays can also increase symptoms of anxiety, panic, depression, and overwhelm, and it’s important to stay in touch with what you need, set appropriate boundaries for yourself in all the things you’re managing, and reach out for help when you recognize you need a little more support.


If you’re looking for a therapist or for more information, contact me today. I’d be happy to work with you to help you access these tips and resources so you can start looking forward to YOUR holiday season again. Cheers!


Christmas holiday lights on a dark blue background


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