How to Handle Anxiety and Family During the Holidays

The holiday season is supposed to be a time when most people are having fun, giving presents, and visiting with family members they love. However, very often, those with anxiety disorders, and especially those with social anxiety disorder, find that the holidays are more of a stressor than anything else. Stress can result from anticipating family members who may be rude or obnoxious, fear of all the planning and hectic scheduling that the holidays can bring, and sometimes, people with social anxiety disorder just do not have a good idea of what to say around their family. Or, perhaps a person’s family is really large and it is very hard to sit down and have a calm conversation with someone. Finally, some family members may not understand that you have social anxiety disorder, and these family members may say things (possibly intentionally) that agitate your social anxiety.

So, what is a person who has an anxiety disorder to do with all the chaos that the holidays can bring? The answer is very simple: planning. Thinking ahead (even just a little bit) and anticipating what types of things might arise that provoke your anxiety, and then planning how to handle those potential situations will go a long way in reducing your anxiety.

For those who struggle with general anxiety about how the situation might go, simply do things as far ahead of time as possible. If the Christmas meal has to be perfect in someone’s eyes, then plan it out and have everything bought a week before. Cook all the food and have it prepared thirty minutes before everyone arrives. That way, if some mistakes do happen, you are prepared ahead of time and will have extra time to fix those mistakes. If some family members sometimes fail to show up, be sure to let them know when and where the celebration will be well ahead of time, perhaps a week or two if possible. Whatever situation it is that is making you anxious about the holidays, your level of anxiety about that situation will reduce if you plan accordingly.

For those with social anxiety disorder, the holidays can be even more tricky. For example, a person with social anxiety disorder may be surrounded by family members whom he or she would like to get to know, however, simply the anticipation of many people being at the celebration may make that person so anxious that initiating a conversation may be very difficult. Another problem that the socially anxious person may encounter might be that he or she is the one who is “different” from all the other family members. Perhaps everyone else is very interested in hunting or sports, and you are the person who is interested in art and music. This is a very difficult situation to handle for the socially anxious person because starting conversation is difficult enough in the first place, and then, to compound the difficulty, that person has interests different from most of those in family, which makes conversation even more difficult. Finally, the most difficult problem for the socially anxious person to handle is those comments that other people make which really irk his or her anxiety. Other family members may say, “You’re not so talkative today,” or , “Why are you always so quiet?”

The key here again is planning. Have techniques in place that help to reduce your anxiety about the event. If your family celebration is going to be large enough to irk your anxiety, make sure you have a friend or other family to talk about your anxiety with. Getting your anxiety out of your head and into the light will help to reduce its effects almost immediately. You could also practice positive visualization (visualizing that things will go well), or perhaps you could copy some progressive relaxation music into your MP3 player and listen to that on your way to the family gathering. If there’s something else that you have found that helps to reduce your anxiety for large events, then by all means, use that.

If you seem to be able to cooperate with your family and have a good time (or at least pretend to have a good time), and only need help acclimating to the number of people present, then you are in a good position. You can try employing some of the techniques noted before such as talking to a supportive friend or spouse, progressive muscle relaxation, positive visualization, and perhaps you might even try simply accepting the anxiety (see ASN’s Accepting Anxiety for more on this), which will help that initial anxiety to dissipate faster. And, you might also recall that family interactions have gone well in the past, even if they did not go the way that you wanted, so in reality, there really is nothing to be anxious about.

If you are the family member who is the “odd man out,” and the one who seems to be different from everyone else, take some time to learn about the interests of the majority of the family members. If they like sports and you like art and music, learn about the sport that they watch and why it is so significant to them. Or, perhaps you could try redirecting their attention to a mutually enjoyable activity. Many families will play board games, and perhaps there you will find that you and the rest of the family share a connection.

Finally, if you are in the most difficult of family situations, which is when you have family members who can see that you are quiet and who say things to you such as, “Why are you being so quiet?” then it is important to remember that while you may not understand it, they are simply trying to understand what is happening. The questions that are being asked themselves are very difficult to bear because they make you, the social anxiety sufferer, feel like an idiot and very guilty for being the way that you are. What you can do to deal with these situations is to employ all the techniques listed previously or others that you might have found that have worked for you. However, you could also say things to fend them off emotionally such as, “I’m just kind of a quiet person,” or, “I just feel like being quiet today.” These statements validate you in that they reflect the fact that you feel it is okay for you to be a certain way (and it is okay) even though others might disagree. Additionally, you might try making a joke out of the whole thing. You could say, “Today, I am being quiet because while on my way here, aliens abducted me and conducted intense probing of my mouth and throat. As a result, these regions are very sore, and of course you could understand why I am being so quiet.” This statement, though ludicrous, is very powerful in that it shows that you are very comfortable with the way you are and are willing to joke about yourself. This makes people realize that you are not vulnerable, and more than likely they will reduce those types of questions or even eliminate them entirely.

The bottom line is that for very many people, including anxiety sufferers, the holidays are very stressful. While the holidays can be very joyous occasions for some, for others, the best that they can do may be to simply “get through it.” If you fall into this category, just remember that it only last a few hours and you only have to see these people a few times per year. While you can make most of your life enjoyable, inevitably, some parts of it will always be challenging or stressful. Hopefully, however, the techniques presented in this article and some of your own personal experience will help you to make your holiday season a joyous occasion, as it should be. Happy holidays to everyone that is struggling with anxiety this holiday season!