Holiday stress is real. How you can cope with it all.
How to manage holiday stress and anxiety.
How to manage holiday stress and anxiety.
Image: vicky leta / mashable

For some people, the holidays really are "the most wonderful time of the year," but for others they're anything but. Stressors can include anxiety about travel or pressure to drink.  

Thankfully, it's become more acceptable to talk about these challenges during the holidays and throughout the year. Activists, celebrities, and everyday people are increasingly sharing their struggles, which has reduced the stigma surrounding mental health. 

Whether you're nervous about flying or staying sober at a holiday event, there are concrete ways to manage those emotions. Here are some techniques for dealing with stress and anxiety that stems from common holiday season scenarios:  

If you're worried about traveling...

Taking public transportation during the holidays usually entails long lines, jam-packed spaces, and short tempers. The chaos can induce a lot of panic, or even panic attacks.

Jeff Baker, a therapist, educator, and mental health activist, says a technique called grounding can help reestablish your sense of reality. Coloring during a train ride, for example, shifts the focus to what's in front of you. 

"That can help you remain present in places that are really busy and chaotic, like airports and train stations, where you can easily become overstimulated and therefore panicky," he says. 

If coloring doesn't sound soothing, use your own body to relax. Baker recommends using the emotional freedom technique, which involves tapping the meridian points on your body, such as the front of your eyebrow and under your nose. (While EFT performed in a clinical setting shows promise in a reducing anxiety, the technique is still viewed as an alternative approach to reducing stress.)

Another technique to consider is called progressive muscle relaxation. It can help relieve tension in your body, which in turn relaxes your mind. Tense and then relax muscle groups with each breath, starting from one end of the body, moving upward or downward. You can find audio recordings for this technique online, and learn more about how effective it is by visiting the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

If you're staying sober...

Not everyone can drink in social settings, whether it's because they prefer not to drink, are in recovery, or because they're on medication. They may be pregnant but don't want to announce that yet. 

"For folks who are striving to maintain sobriety, it's important to remember that the holidays are just like any other day," says Baker. "We, as a society, have given holidays special meaning and designated certain traditions on these days, but they come and go just like every other day. Your preference not to drink or your recovery routine shouldn't change." 

Prepare an explanation so that you're not caught off guard, such as "I'm on medication, I'm a designated driver, or I don't drink anymore." 

"I think one of the biggest sources of anxiety for those not drinking or for those in recovery is the explanation that they have to give and possibly being dismissed. So anticipating possible peer pressure and preparing is key," says Baker.

Make an escape plan before the event in case you want to leave earlier than expected. Say and do what's necessary in order to feel comfortable, even if that means answering a pretend phone call outside. No matter what people say or think, sobriety is the number one priority. 

Baker says fake explanations aren't necessarily lies because they're not meant to cause harm or manipulate people. They're meant to keep yourself safe. 

If you're hosting a work event, remind employees it's not OK to pry or peer pressure people who aren't drinking. Whether it's a professional or private party, offer non-alcoholic alternative drinks, as well as activities that don't focus on drinking. 

When you're home for the holidays, it may be a good idea to attend a recovery group meeting, start reading a book on recovery, or declare an abstinence plan, says Baker. 

If you're dreading the dinner table...

Holiday traditions center around food, which can bring up anxious feelings for some people, whether they've experienced an eating disorder, try to maintain a diet, or have high expectations for what or how much they'll eat. Julie Groveman, a clinical psychologist in New York City, says if someone is feeling anxious about food, they can practice a mindful exercise. That means using the senses by slowing down to chew, feeling the texture of the food, and smelling any aromas. 

"You want to be mindful of your experience so it grounds you into the moment."

In general, using your senses is an effective way to relieve stress because they bring you out of your mind and into the present moment. 

"The whole idea is that [anxiety] is really sometimes like a false alarm system that’s overly sensitive to make you feel like the situation isn’t safe...," says Groveman. "You want to be mindful of your experience so it grounds you into the moment."

You might also dread the dinner table for family reasons. The holidays often bring up intense political conversations and other topics that stir conflict. At the very least, most people have one family member they can't stand. Baker suggests setting a boundary by predetermining how long a family visit will last and, if possible, steering the conversation in a way that's positive. 

If you're feeling alone...

Not everyone can spend the holidays with family, and that can bring up feelings of loneliness or sadness. That's understandable, but try not to wallow. 

"Just because it’s been a certain way in the past, or just because it looks a certain way on social media or in the movies, doesn’t mean it needs to be that way for you," says Groveman.

If you're away from family and friends, it can help to embrace that alone time and enjoy your own company. Try cooking a new recipe or volunteering. Groveman says helping others is a great way to get out of your mind and into the present moment. 

Groveman also recommends a technique called intention setting that helps refocus the mind. Write down what you want to get out of an experience, including what you want to feel, whether that's comfort, relaxation, or connection. Jot down whatever words come to mind and use them as a guide to create an experience that's meaningful for you.

A "gratitude" list helps as well. Groveman says focusing on what you have versus what you're lacking can put your mind into perspective. She notes that nothing is too small to add to the list. 

If you're anxious about an upcoming event...

Groveman recommends self-soothing behaviors that incorporate your senses, like meditating, taking a bath, listening to music, or putting lavender essential oil on your wrists. 

"I like to look at anxiety as an energy, and a lot of times, it’s just kind of stuck in your body," says Groveman. "Something like exercise, even just taking a brisk walk, helps to move it through." 

Groveman suggests carrying a small item that makes you feel calm or safe, like a crystal or a picture of a pet. The act of holding an object can help ground you in the moment as anxiety arises. 

You can also rehearse a mantra that you'll tell yourself when you start to feel anxious, but it should be something you truly believe. Examples include "This feeling will pass" and "I've survived this feeling before." Groveman says repeating some type of coping statement helps manage anxiety. 

"A lot of times with anxiety, it's so much fear about having the anxiety, and it's almost like a vicious cycle," says Groveman. 

The important thing to remember is that with the right coping skills, you can handle these experiences. 

If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you're based in the UK or the ROI, call the Samaritans on 116 123. For international resources, this list is a good place to start.

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