Coping with Depression and Anxiety During the Holidays
For many of us, the holiday season means a break from work, spending time with family, and sharing laughs while baking holiday cookies — and yet the constant reminder that this is supposed to be the “most magical time of the year” can leave us with an uncomfortable feeling of dread.
Some people may even feel guilty for not wanting to engage in the traditions and festivities, but even of that can feel anything but magical. What is less talked about are negative feelings, memories, and expectations that tend to show up right as the days go by. The question of how to calm anxiety is on many people's minds even though it is supposedly the season "to be jolly" or rather because of just that.
The difficulties people can experience at this time of year are often compounded by expectations; “I should feel happy”, “I feel like I should go to this party”, “I’m supposed to celebrate”. This pressure to feel a certain way often makes us feel quite the opposite. To counter this, we must reduce the strain on ourselves, adjust our expectations, identify our boundaries, and be patient with ourselves. Let’s take a look at some more specific ways that can help us survive the holiday struggle.
How to Calm Holiday Anxiety Related to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Some of the markers of living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are irritability, impulsivity, insomnia, substance abuse, anxiety and avoidance behaviours. While each person’s experience is unique, this set of symptoms undeniably makes celebrations difficult.
Feeling easily annoyed when around family and friends can make most of those around you feel as though they must walk on eggshells. Snapping at people who are having a good time can lead to feelings of guilt and shame. Feeling low and angry with yourself can also put you in a prime position for impulsive decisions that could lead to negative results.
There are impulsive behaviors such as rageful driving, binge eating or drinking, and overspending, which are often just quick ways to disguise difficult emotions. Reckless behaviour may prove to be a temporary distraction, but your true emotions always resurface. Juggling all of this can lead to a busy mind — scattered thoughts of to-do lists, forgetting upcoming events, and last-minute shopping can make it challenging to “shut off” at the end of the day.
Many people think that the exhaustion of the day miraculously disappears when it comes time to sleep. Unfortunately, some people spend their nights thinking instead of resting. All these experiences compound and leave people looking for ways to escape all the turmoil in their lives. Avoidance can look like drinking too much alcohol, relying on illicit substances, working long hours, working out multiple times daily, or zoning out at a screen.
Here are some tricks to calm anxiety if any of this seems familiar:
Act against symptoms: Feeling prolonged irritability can be exhausting. In cases like this, it’s good to recognize that others can’t read your mind or know when you are overwhelmed. This helps to shift the responsibility onto yourself to know your cues. Detecting symptoms like elevated body temperature, facial tension, and short responses as cues of rising anger can help us to diffuse before taking anger out on others. If you notice your irritability increasing, try placing an icy cold cloth on the back of your neck - not only will it cool you down, but it will distract you from what was just bothering you.
Think of a traffic light: This quick tool helps to highlight the moment of choice you have before deciding and helps to reduce impulsivity. Red light - stop what you are doing. Yellow light - think about what the short term and long-term results are. Green light - now act, taking into consideration how you will feel about it tomorrow.
Meditate to sleep better: Listening to night-time meditation can help to induce sleep. If you don’t practice meditation, no worries --- there are plenty of guided meditations available online that may simply describe walking down a beach or help you to imagine a calm, carefree environment.
Set achievable goals: Setting measurable goals can help us to reduce avoidance behaviours. You may find it helpful to talk to a loved one so they can help you to recognize when you are gravitating towards forms of escapism.
How to Relieve Holiday Anxiety This time of the year seems to be speckled with social pressure. Knowing which people, situations, or environments cause you to feel anxious can help you plan and be ready.
Acknowledge your feelings: When you push away anxious emotions, they tend to come back stronger - demanding your attention. This holiday season, try acknowledging your emotions with validation statements such as “this is hard, but I can do it” or “this feeling is really big right now, but I know it’s temporary”.
Take deep breaths: Practising deep breathing strategies helps to calm the nervous system. Imagine expanding and deflating a balloon in your diaphragm to help focus your attention on breathing low in your belly, rather than high and shallow in your upper chest. Picture out-and-in, rather than up-and-down.
Plan your exit: Remember that you’re allowed to leave social gatherings if you don’t feel comfortable anymore. Pick a time to go and stick to the plan. For other events, it may be beneficial to talk to a partner or friend about having a code word that signals when it’s time to go.
How to Manage Eating Disorders
Years of dieting make it incredibly difficult to have a healthy relationship with food, especially around the holidays. Whether it is the food options at get-togethers or New Year’s Resolutions, this season can be filled with “dieting talk”.
With the shame that follows these conversations, it is no surprise that people can find themselves in a binge and restrict cycle. This leads to ruminating about food all day long, feeling guilty about eating, and obsessively categorizing foods as “good” or “bad”. Remember this holiday season that it’s okay to:
Enjoy your favourite foods: There is a reason why some dishes are your favourite, and they should be savoured accordingly. Oftentimes restricting our favourite foods will actually increase the craving for it. Try planning to enjoy your favourite treats shame-free, while listening to your body’s cues of fullness.
Not engage in diet talk: Assertive communication tools can help to redirect the conversation to other topics directly. Statements such as “Let’s talk about something else”, or “I’d like to avoid diet talk” make your boundary clear to others. When you are not used to assertive communication, this may feel like a harsh approach. But in reality, being assertive will save you (and likely others) from an uncomfortable conversation. If you would like to provide more of an explanation, try something like this: “I’m really trying to work on developing a better relationship with food, and it would mean a lot to me if we could talk about something else”.
Practice mindful eating: Use food as a mindfulness tool to help you stay present. Don’t just eat; consider slowly thinking through the taste, texture, and temperature of what you are eating, as this creates a calm, grounded moment in a busy season filled with chaos.
Most of all, remember - it doesn’t matter how many candies and treats you had yesterday, you still need and deserve to eat today.
How to Combat Depression During the Holidays
Marked by low mood, reduced motivation, lethargy, and social withdrawal, depression is usually in stark contrast to the festive holiday feel. During depressive episodes, you want to stay in bed longer, be less active during the days, and zone out during screen time. But before resorting to medicines for depression, there are many ways to promote and enhance mental wellbeing by implementing a few activities and practices:
Going outside: While this may seem simple, committing to getting yourself outside at least once a day leads to mental, emotional, and physical benefits. Getting natural sunshine helps your circadian rhythm and will help you to feel more motivated during the daytime hours. Often setting a timeline such as, “I will get outside for 10 minutes before noon” will make the goal more attainable.
Establishing routines: Having a schedule to stick to helps to pace out the day, especially when you don’t have the evening sun to guide you. Try to get up at the same time each day, and to not vary the time you go to bed by more than half an hour.
Taking some vitamins: Talk to your doctor about taking vitamin supplements that may help to balance out the reduced exposure to sunlight during the winter months
Reducing internal pressure: While you can’t control the expectations of others, you can challenge your inner dialogue by watching for “mind reading” patterns that increase overwhelming feelings. Focusing on what is most realistic will help you to make plans in moderation, while not being too hard on yourself if you need to say no to plans.
How to Deal with Anxiety and Substance Abuse
Drinking too much alcohol is pretty common especially during celebratory seasons. But many people find that they have less control over their emotions after drinking. Alcohol is disinhibitory, making people less mindful of their behaviour and how it may affect others.
If you are in recovery from alcohol, the holiday season can be filled with harmful, albeit well-meaning, offers of drinks. Suggestions to “have just one” can be incredibly challenging.
Glass Half Full: Have a plan to carry around a glass of pop, juice, or water to minimize offers from others.
Self-Compassion: Whether you are recently sober, have been sober for a long time, or are looking to change your relationship with alcohol, it is helpful to remind yourself it can be a difficult undertaking that requires far more than willpower. Have strategies and people close to you that can help you stay accountable for your own goals.
Prepare Your Line: Aim to take a deep breath and make your boundary clear. For example, you could respond with “Thank you for your concern, but I’d rather not talk about that right now”. It can be helpful to plan to follow up with a new topic such as work updates, favourite sport teams, or films and television shows.
The holidays can be an especially hard time of year but remember - you are not alone. Archways Centre for CBT can help you navigate through hard times and provide support whenever you are ready. Be gentle to yourself this season.