The holiday season is upon us, and I am already anxious about my upcoming anxiety. It may seem silly, but ever since puberty when I was first diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I have predictably cried during every holiday, especially Christmas. It’s always for different “reasons,” but it’s ultimately the same: holiday anxiety. My family has a lot of October birthdays, and then with November birthdays (including mine) packed in with Thanksgiving and Christmas, I become overwhelmed. I both love and hate this season. It is my favorite and my least favorite.
The first few years after my diagnosis, I was so confused when Christmas day came and I was overjoyed but still always ended up in tears. Sometimes I couldn’t give you a reason, but sometimes, a perceived slight or self-criticism was at the core. Several Christmases I could not afford a lot for gifts. As I have a rather large family and I always want to make donations during the holiday seasons, I decided to buy bags of food for those in need and then give those “gifts” as gifts. I thought it was perfect, as my family loves helping those in need just as much as I do. But when the day came and they opened those envelopes, I was filled both with dread and complete confidence that it was the worst gift I could have given. Now that I’m an adult, I find myself getting emotional when certain traditions aren’t followed. It’s not until after my breakdown that I am actually able to verbalize what triggered my overwhelming anxiety.
Many of us hold the holidays close. Even when we don’t have high expectations, we often have hope — and for those of us with anxiety who must plan and prepare both in actuality and emotionally, it can become overwhelming very quickly. We may think of talking to family we don’t see all year and telling them all the good things we accomplished, only to fear we didn’t accomplish enough. We may try to practice strategies to keep from arguing with that sibling or aunt we always seem to argue with, only to fall into the same cycle year after year. We might think of how we’ve gained weight over the year and will be judged, or that guests will be attending the festivities who we feel we must impress. And nothing goes perfectly, and the strategies we’ve practiced don’t help. When it started for me in middle school, it was that I only really wanted one gift and it never came (or my brother got it instead!). But with the onset of anxiety, I became less capable of being able to steady myself in those tumultuous moments.
If you know someone with anxiety, you might check in with them and help them realistically adjust their expectations for the celebrations. You might talk to them about the people they are worried about interacting with and offer to try to be a part of those conversations to help steady them. Most of all, if they cry or escape the festivities, be understanding. Check in, but give them their space to steady themselves if they need. Let them know that you care, you understand, and you are there for them no matter what.
If you are someone struggling with anxiety during the holidays, know you are not alone! It is your anxiety causing your outbursts, not you, and those who love you are not going to abandon you because of a hard day. You have not ruined everyone’s celebration, and it is OK to be overwhelmed. I learned to take myself out of the hustle and bustle when I get overwhelmed and take private time to calm down. And when you feel like you’ve had enough and have to leave, leave and don’t feel bad about it. Choose someone you trust to tell that you need to leave and to tell everyone goodbye. Don’t blame yourself for leaving. It is your anxiety, not you.
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