Happy holidays, and welcome to the AFP Blog! In my first post, I’d like to offer 12 tips (one for each day of Christmas...) for dealing with anxiety around the holidays. But first a disclaimer: In the title of this post, I put men in parentheses--not because anxiety is any less uncomfortable or disruptive for them, but because holiday planning and stress often fall disproportionately on women. That said, these tips can help everyone reduce feelings of worry, stress, and anxiety that are often an unfortunate part of spending time with family and friends.
1. Use a relaxation app to keep your anxiety thermometer as low as possible. Relaxation techniques help your body reabsorb cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones) more quickly and efficiently. Relaxation is the antidote to stress.
2. Take a walk. Actually, any form of physical exercise will help reduce stress. It gets you out of your house and away from stressful people, pumps your endorphins, and carves out a little time for yourself.
3. Find 30 minutes to recharge. Soak in a tub, read a book, work on a puzzle, take a nap, listen to music, be “mindless.” A small amount of time when you think of nothing and no one else can feel like a luxury at this time of year.
4. Connect with someone who makes you laugh. Laughter reduces cortisol and strengthens your emotional immune system.
5. Incorporate super snacks (e.g., berries, nuts, kale chips, yogurt, a hard boiled egg, or avocado). Going long periods without eating causes the release of adrenaline. If you are stressed, your body burns off blood sugar at a much higher rate than when you are relaxed. Hypoglycemia can mimic stress with irritability, shaking, and apprehension.
6. Examine the cost and benefits of options that are available to you. We don’t just pay for things financially; we also pay with our time and our emotional energy. Some tasks might be worth paying others to do if it makes you feel less stressed overall. Be sure that you are considering all of the potential “costs” when making a decision.
7. Rather than running through your “to do” list over and over, use visualization to change your focus to a scene or a setting that you find neutral or relaxing. Use your five senses as a guide. Visualization helps manage the mind-body connection; if you can channel your mind to neutral or calming scenes, your body follows suit.
8. Practice finding the positive. Your mind is pre-programmed to find potential problems or difficulties. This makes you vulnerable to a negative or pessimistic outlook. Make an effort to record at least three positive aspects of your day. These can include: things you accomplished, interactions with others, pleasure or satisfaction you experienced, something that “went right,” a break you caught, a compliment or kindness you received, feelings of gratitude, etc.
9. Power nap for 20 minutes in a cool, dark room that’s free from distractions. An hour or two after lunch is the ideal time, since that is when blood sugar and energy levels drop, and it is early enough that it will not disrupt your nighttime sleep.
10. Write it out. Journaling (or writing the email or letter that you are not going to send) helps you express your feelings, examine your thinking, and get distance that allows you to think differently about a situation or stressors.
11. Notice your shoulders. Are they up near your ears? Do you feel tension radiating across your shoulders and up your neck? This is where most people experience muscle tension. Release tension in that area by pulling your shoulders up toward your ears. Then roll your shoulders down your back. Next, roll them forward and back into their natural position. Repeat 5-7 times.
12. Let one “should” go. Skip a non-essential errand. Eliminate one stop on your holiday route. Buy cookies rather than making them. One year, I printed 100 copies of a photo of my new baby, only to realize when I went to stuff the envelopes that the insert needed to go the other way. Dilemma: buy 100 new cards or 100 new photos. Solution: insert baby the wrong way and send cards anyway. (I actually received compliments from several friends who recognized my attempt to let go of perfectionism—which is always hard, especially at the holidays when everything must be picture perfect!)
Dr. Jill Sullivan is a licensed clinical psychologist with more than fifteen years of specialized training and expertise in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). She is a co-founder of CBT Specialists of Chicago, and creator of Anxiety-Free Pregnancy.