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6 Tips for Managing Anxiety During Family Gatherings

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Every few years, my dad and stepmom get all of their family together for Thanksgiving. For our first gathering, we stayed in Tahoe. I remember taking a really long and wonderful walk with my stepmom and sitting in the hot tub under the stars with my niece. The second time, we went to Santa Barbara. It was warm and beautiful, even though one of my stepmom’s sons and his family couldn’t be there. It was also my first holiday season dealing with anxiety. This past year, we visited Ojai. We stayed in a big, old mansion that was built in the 1920s. Everyone was there. I got to see two of my friends and go on a beautiful hike with my partner, niece and nephew. I even got spit on by a miniature alpaca.

There are a lot of things about getting together with my family that are awesome. This year, some of us volunteered to paint at Habitat for Humanity, and I got to spend time wearing a pair of coveralls that made me feel like I was about to land on the moon. But there are also some things that are hard. It can be difficult to realize what you need before something happens when you’re struggling with anxiety, and it can also be a scary or difficult conversation to voice those needs to loved ones.

Part of why mental health is so stigmatized is that it’s treated as though the person who is dealing with symptoms is doing so purposefully, and thus, their bad mood, sleeping in late or struggle to enjoy themselves is taken personally. For those of you who have experienced it, you may know the fear of judgment that comes when you have to talk about your mental health. It can be so hard to speak up when you need to.

One of the things that is particularly hard for me is creating opportunities for myself to be alone and articulating what I need. I struggle to have conversations with my family about how the physical environment, or the feeling that I need to be present with everyone at all times, has a severe impact on my mental health. I also struggle with thinking things out ahead of time. In retrospect, if I had spent some time preparing myself and thinking about what it could, or would be like, during each part of the trip, I could have done certain things differently or not done them at all. I love being with my family, but this past family gathering, I wish that I had been more proactive both before and during the trip.

I learned a lot of lessons during that trip about what does and does not work for me, why it’s so important to think ahead, and the ways anxiety influences me even when I’m not conscious of it. Sometimes the combination of anxiety and my natural tendencies leads me to make what I consider to be bad choices, or to be a not-so-great partner, sister or daughter. After those moments, I realize I have to learn from, and think about, the little ways in which anxiety works within me so that I can continue to grow in all of the roles I fill. Managing anxiety is a part of how I take responsibility for my own actions, good or bad, because it’s not the anxiety itself that leads to a choice, it’s the way I react to those feelings of anxiety and my thought processes around it.

The next time I have a big gathering, I plan to use the following six tips as a guide to make sure that I don’t end up in tears, feel overwhelmed or miss sleep because of anxiety.

1. Be proactive and think ahead.

Set aside some time beforehand to really think about all aspects of a gathering or a trip.

What things have the potential to make you feel anxious?

What’s the best case response to that feeling of anxiety?

What do you think is your most likely response?

How can you arrange things to minimize triggers?

What strategies can you use to help feel less anxious both before and during the gathering?

As I mentioned before, I wish I had been proactive and thought ahead during my last trip, not only because it would have been a better experience for me, but for my partner and my family as well.

2. Schedule quiet time.

If you’re a person like me who is sensitive to light and sound, 15 people at the same dinner table or in the same living room as you is overwhelming. I can handle the chaos once, but not multiple times a day for three to four days in a row. The cumulative effect of constant overstimulation is difficult. During my last trip, I became so overwhelmed by the volume and amount of conversations, I spent the whole week taking a steady stream of Advil to manage the headache. I should have purposefully set aside some quiet time for myself, not just a minute here and there whenever I could find it, because that didn’t seem to cut it. So, in the future, I’m going to make sure I carve out time for myself each day to be in a quiet space and away from others.

3. Remember to practice your positive coping strategies.

I didn’t bring my yoga gear this past trip because I had no idea what my schedule would be like, and I really regretted it. We went for a hike, which was awesome and gave me a boost of endorphins, but I was basically sedentary for the next four days. Not only was I physically feeling the lack of movement, but my emotional shields became depleted by the time we left because I hadn’t had much time to myself to recharge and work through the things that were bothering me and causing anxiety. And in the future, when I remember to bring my yoga gear but I’m not able to practice, I want to remember to meditate in order to have more consistency and provide myself with an intentional, quiet space every day.

4. Plan an escape route.

I’m not advocating suddenly leaving or cutting your trip short, although there is nothing wrong with that if that is what you need. Since it is hard for me to tell my family in the moment that I need space, next time I plan on setting aside some time before the trip to talk to them about my needs and make a plan for some breathing room so that we can all have the expectation of not being together at all times.

5. Speak up.

A lesson I am continually learning is how important it is to communicate and set expectations with others. In overwhelming moments, I wish I could say something, but I normally end up waiting until things are pretty bad, like crying in our bedroom each afternoon “bad,” before I say anything — and my crying starts speaking for me at that point. But even then, this past trip, I didn’t say anything to my family. The only ones who really knew what was going on were my partner and my sister. I talk to both of them a lot about how it’s easier, better and less stressful to speak up before you’re at your breaking point; and every time, they’re right. So I’m working on it.

6. Give yourself a break.

My partner is always so good at helping me put anxiety into perspective and to not equate anxiety-driven decision with who I am as a person. I’m really hard on myself, and I often don’t look at the whole picture before I start feeling guilty or having regrets and ruminating on those unhealthy feelings. My partner helps me balance taking ownership of my behavior while giving myself permission to make mistakes and move on. He holds me accountable and gives me the space to reflect and make better choices next time. I’m learning how to do this for myself, but it’s hard work. I just keep thinking about what my sister said to me, “Take all of the compassion you feel for [other anxious people] and turn it toward yourself when you are feeling anxious.” She is totally right. When I’m feeling anxious, I have a tendency to be even harder on myself than normal. While I don’t want to let myself off the hook when I do make a mistake or a bad decision, I want to be able to learn and move forward. I have to remember to give myself a break and that I’m not perfect. I have to allow myself to do whatever I need to feel better, even if that means temporarily disappointing some people, or myself.

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Thinkstock photo via monkeybusinessimages

Originally published: June 14, 2017
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