A couple years ago, my friend and colleague, Michelle E. Vasquez, LPC, interviewed me on her Blog Talk Radio show to talk about coping with anxiety during the Holidays.
What follows are excerpts from the interview.
What is it about the Holidays that gets us so stressed out?
A few things. It is not always the happy time it is cracked up to be. We think something is wrong with us if our holidays are not fitting the image we have of everyone else's holiday. We may be traveling to see family and dealing with crowded airports, or the stress of preparing to be off on vacation from work. Going back to see family may trigger old hurts. We are busier than usual, with shopping and getting together with others. We pressure ourselves to buy the perfect presents, host the perfect party, or bring the perfect potluck item.
Does Holiday stress affect some people more than others?
Yes. People who have had recent losses... of a loved one, a job, their health...Single people who are not comfortable being single, and wish they had that special someone to enjoy the holidays with. People who are struggling financially and feeling pressured to buy presents for everyone. People who tend to become depressed or anxious can become more vulnerable to an episode of depression or panic during this stressful time. People who are naturally shy or introverted.
Since the Holiday season is just over a month long or so, starting with Thanksgiving and ending with the New Year, why not just ride the wave and recuperate afterward? Why get stressed out about the stress?
The idea isn't to get stressed out about the stress, but to get informed about how it affects us, and make choices to lessen it. Stress, if not dealt with, can affect our immune systems, not a good idea during a season that coincides with cold and flu season. Stress can make us irritable, and thus wreak havoc with our relationships. It can leave us feeling too tired or uptight to enjoy the holidays. If we have a tendency toward anxiety or depression, stress can cause more depression, more anxiety. Stress can lead us to eat or drink more than we wanted to, further weakening our immune systems and our moods.
What are some ways we can lessen stress during the Holidays?
There are three main ways:
We can change our thinking, we can choose different behaviors, and we can make lifestyle changes to reduce stress.
What are some ways we can change our thinking?
We can interpret things in a more positive, or at least more realistic, way. Not to deny that we feel unhappy about things, but to choose a perspective toward reducing stress.
For example, if money is the challenge, we can welcome the opportunity to scale down and enjoy simpler things. We can be glad we don't have to go to the crowded and noisy malls to buy presents! We can enjoy being creative, finding meaningful ways to celebrate and share with the people who matter.
If we are thinking everyone else is having fun except us, we might decide to realize that all we really know is what people present. They may look happy in their family letter and pictures, or in their Facebook posts. But who really knows? Everyone has problems of some type, and some are better than others at presenting a happy image to the world.
If we are feeling lonely and miserable without a special someone, we can reinterpret this as an opportunity to get to know ourselves better, and find ways to enjoy life without a mate. We can look around at couples who don't seem to be enjoying themselves so much, and realize that having someone is no guarantee of happiness. We could still look forward to hopefully having a special someone in the future, while deciding not to be miserable with ourselves in the meantime.
If visiting our nutty families is what stresses us out, we can decide to stop expecting that it will be different this time, and just take things as they are. After all, why should they be different this visit than on past visits? Would it be realistic to think so? Much disappointment can be avoided by not having that expectation.
What are some of the behaviors we can choose, to lower stress?
This would go along with changing our thinking, our perspective, and choosing not to react in a knee jerk way. Not assuming the worst, but reframing something first, and responding accordingly.
For example, if you have decided to take a break from pining away for a special someone, you may decide to go to some get togethers alone to enjoy socializing, or take a trip with a group such as the Sierra Club or some local group you know of. You never know, you could meet that special someone that way. Just don't pressure yourself to make that the goal of socializing. Better to go in with an open, curious mind, ready to enjoy the activity and the people.
If you decided to scale back and not spend money you don't have, then you would act on that by brainstorming and discovering affordable ways to give gifts.
If you decided to lower stress by being less busy, you would then choose behaviors to support that. You may decide to do all your shopping online, or give gifts from one favorite store, such as a bookstore. You may decide to pick up that potluck item at a deli on the way, rather than preparing that perfect but time consuming dish.
What are some lifestyle choices we can make to lower stress?
We can eat a reasonably balanced diet most of the time, enjoying the special treats in moderation.
We can exercise regularly, even if just a daily walk around the block. That is a proven stress buster and mood lifter.
We can choose not to overindulge in alcohol, sweets, or caffeine.
We can practice some form of relaxation exercise, most days, if not daily.
What are some examples of relaxation exercises?
Simple breathing exercises, especially abdominal breathing.
Mindfulness exercises, such as paying focused attention to one activity at a time, gently bringing your attention back when it wanders.
Walking peacefully in nature, or even in a park or tree lined street, noticing your surroundings.
Sitting quietly and having a pleasant daydream, about some lovely place, indoors or outdoors, that you have visited, or created in your imagination. This can be your "safe space" when you are feeling frazzled and just nee a little break.
Where would someone learn these relaxation exercises?
There are many good self help books. I like The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, and The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne.
Some communities have various meditation, yoga, or Tai chi classes available.
Some therapists, such as myself, will teach relaxation exercises to their clients as part of their therapy, or offer stress and anxiety management groups.
How can listeners get more training on this from you?
If they are in the Los Angeles area, they can come to one of my Anxiety and Stress Management Training Workshops in Marina del Rey. They can also schedule a one on one session with me.
They can call me at (310) 658-3158 to sign up for a workshop or schedule an individual session. I also do phone sessions with people who are too far away from my Marina del Rey office for in-person sessions.