I can clearly remember the first time someone used the word “anxiety” to describe the way I handled stress in my life. I was in college when I started waking up at 4:00am with my thoughts racing and my stomach in knots. I’d lay in bed tossing and turning thinking about the stupid things I’d said in lecture the day before, or the fact that I didn’t know if I wanted to study pre-law anymore. I’d worry myself in knots about what would happen if I failed classes (which I was never in real risk of doing). I’d cook up worst case scenarios in my head about who would take care of me if I got sick so far away from home. I’d eventually roll over towards the wall and call home at an hour at which I knew my parents would be awake. Mental health was never a taboo topic in our family, and it was my mom who eventually suggested I go to the student counseling center on campus.
Though some think there’s a stigma attached to therapy, seeing a counselor, for me, was wholly a positive experience. I don’t remember a lot about how the conversation progressed, but I can tell you it started with me talking about my class schedule, and ended talking about how my family had celebrated Christmas and how I felt about being the oldest child. It was kind of mind bending, and it didn’t take long for my counselor to peg that I manifested stress as anxiety. She was also the first person who suggested I was an introvert who was trying too hard to be an extravert. I remember asking if she could “fix” that, and her laughing that it was not something to fix, but rather to learn how to embrace and work through. Thus she began to teach me to cope, and in learning to cope, I found my initial symptoms, the stomach aches, sleepless early mornings, and racing thoughts, began to subside, and when they did crop up, I was more prepared to handle them
The holidays can be an anxiety inducing time for many people, which is why I’ve teamed up with my friend Cece, LICSW (Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker) to unpack what makes the holidays such a stressful time, and how you can better arm yourself to find the holly jolly in your Christmas situation! I’ll start with the three techniques that helped me, but she’s got her finger on the real pulse of what makes the holidays so trying for so many. These strategies are not a one size fits all fix, but if you’re feeling stressed out or worked up about the holidays, you might consider trying a few of these coping techniques to help you regroup and reset. They’re also good year round, so maybe 2019 is the year of the mental health resolution. Give yourself the gift of peace of mind this Christmas. It really is the gift that keeps on giving.
Mastering sleep (and what happens if you wake up early)
The first thing my therapist taught me was to meditate myself to sleep. There are lots of sleep meditations on Youtube, and the Calm app has sleep stories that help lead you through the same process. I was given a CD to play at bedtime that went through a calming ritual that helped shutdown my brain during the quiet times when I was left with my own thoughts. I played the CD every night religiously in trying to train myself to sleep. At some point, I started climbing into bed and dozing off before I pushed play. If I woke up early, I’d play the CD again. Even if I didn’t go back to sleep, it focused my mind on something soothing and calm instead of letting my thoughts spin. Getting enough sleep sets me up to face the challenges of the day better, which helped me manage stress better on the whole.
Writing it down and naming it honestly
I have some angsty journals from my college years. If it bothered me, I wrote it down. If it still bothered me, I wrote it down again. The real skill in journaling, however, came when I learned to name what was bothering me honestly. In our relationships and conversations, it’s easy to sugar coat things or phrase them in ways that seem “acceptable” or don’t hurt other people’s feelings. We often contextualize things in a way that makes them seem appropriate and reasonable. However, a lot of times our private thoughts can be irrational and unreasonable, and sifting through that can be a healthy part of figuring out how to cope with the moment. Learning to do this, I feel, made me incredibly self aware. It took a while to get started, but in the safety of my own private journal, I could name whatever it was that was ‘really’ bothering me, and then work to discern where that stress, resentment, insecurity, and anxiety, came from. Being honest about what our real emotions are, however, is the only way we can ever hope to cope with them.
Grounding would have sounded ridiculous to me until I started to do it. Grounding is a technique that helps recenter someone in the present moment. When anxious thoughts creep in, it’s easy to let the mind race and to lose sight of the here and now. We currently have a sign on our fridge that reads “The terrible reality in your head may not match the actual reality of the moment,” because it’s sometimes easy to let the imagination run wild. Grounding is often related to the senses and/or breathing. My first grounding strategy was a simple breathing exercise. I’d breathe in for eight seconds, hold it for four, breathe out for four, and then hold for four again. Sometimes this is modified to four seconds for each phase. This is called square breathing.
I now more frequently use a touch point for grounding. I can’t pinpoint the moment I started doing it, but sometime after I got married, I noticed that in stressful situations and difficult conversations, I’d cross my left thumb under and touch my wedding ring. I do this almost without thinking about it, and in anxious moments, I find it to be a quick and easy way to center.
Okay…take it away Cece!
Before a holiday event:
The way you go into a situation greatly impacts how it will play out. You choose to set the tone with the mindset you bring. Your thoughts, affect your feelings and mood, which then affect how you behave and act. The self-fulfilling prophecy applies greatly here. If you’re going into the family Christmas party with an attitude like “My brother will probably be a jerk again… I don’t want to go…This is going to be terrible… ”, that is EXACTLY how things will go! But it doesn’t have to be! You can control your perspective. Perhaps without realizing it, you are programming your brain to be on the lookout for things that are wrong and unpleasant even before arriving to the party. In fact, our brains naturally are more drawn to the negative as they are fixing machines, constantly looking for things that are not right to fix! Your brain will be a magnet to the negative things. “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones” (Rick Hanson, PhD). That’s why it can be so hard to think positively sometimes.
Quick Tip: Catch yourself in this negative thought cycle. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Good ol’ Ice Cube. Name the emotion, and be honest about it; i.e. “I’m worried that Sarah won’t like the gift I bought her. What if she thinks it’s stupid?”. What you’re thinking and feeling is OKAY, but is it helpful right now? Is it getting in your way? Notice how it is affecting your mood, behavior, and how it may affect your engagement with others. Now, practice a thought-reframing strategy and go for a more balanced, neutral, but useful frame of mind to bring to the event. What would be a more helpful and productive way to think about this? “It’ll be good to see the cousins… I always enjoy grandma’s pecan pie… It’s only 2 hours that I need to put the extra effort in, and then it’ll be over before I know it”. Really allow yourself to consider other ways that the party can play out to find a more flexible and open head space. Your day will develop based on how you set yourself up for it.
During the holiday event:
Some anxiety can feel so unraveling and depersonalizing, we feel as if we’re having an out of body experience. Say your aunt dives into one of her usual political rampages and you’re starting to lose your cool. Your thoughts are starting to spiral, and you feel yourself getting a little flushed. To regain control, take a step back for a moment and just take it all in – this strategy is mindfulness, and is actually more of a lifestyle change than a one-time use coping skill. Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose non-judgmentally using your senses. Reconnect with your body, how it feels, and what’s happening around you. When we are mindful, we are regaining control of our emotional brain, while tapping into our rational brain. When you are thinking about the objects in the room, such as focusing on the details of the tablecloth at Christmas dinner, you feel in response to this, not in response to the anxious and catastrophizing thought.
Some people use an “anchor” to ground them in the moment whether that be through an object observation, or such as in the case of Kate with her wedding ring. The more mindful you are, the happier you feel, research shows. The more we get caught up in our negative and anxious thoughts, the more we are affected by our webs of distressed thinking. The more present we are and focused on details in each moment, the more in control and contained we can be. Mindfulness is about noticing things – honoring, not indulging. Notice the thought of wanting to smack your aunt, but don’t let it consume you.
Quick Tip: Use a 5-4-3-2-1 Mindfulness strategy – name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Really take the time to focus on these things, helping yourself to remain in the moment and fully aware of your surroundings. Be mindful of the time you are spending with family, noticing things you may typically overlook or take for granted; notice your grandmother’s new earrings, and bask in the smell of the familiar Christmas ham. Not only will you remain calmer and more attentive, but you will appreciate, enjoy, and embrace the holiday and those around you, that much more.
If it becomes too much…
A crisis is only a crisis until there’s a plan in-place. Planning ahead will ease the anxiety in itself, because you will have thought out how to manage the situation ahead of time and know what to do when the stress hits. Just as you may rehearse a speech before a presentation, planning ahead and practicing will make it that much easier to execute in the heat of the moment. Know your warning signs. Pay attention to how you feel when you’re anxious. Where do you feel it in your body? Oftentimes, our body is the first clue that we’re off-balance. Ever find yourself holding your breath when you’re anxious or stressed? Notice that and take it as your cue to step back and breathe. For example, when I feel anxious, my heart starts to pound and escalate, sometimes I get flushed, and my stomach sinks. Remember these things so that you feel and notice them sooner, and can engage your coping skills to recenter before things get harder to manage.
Quick Tip: 007: The “Escape Plan”. Tune into these sensations when you notice them, and have a plan of coping skills to use when the time comes. If grounding isn’t doing the trick in the moment, casually excuse yourself from the situation. Take a break and sneak off to the restroom or kitchen to change the scenery and focus on diaphragmatic breathing. The power of breath is incredible, and underutilized! Back up quick tip: If that doesn’t work, engage the body and muscles to help yourself shift the focus away from your thoughts and intense emotions. If you can, go for a walk, do some stretches, swing your arms, splash cold water on your face to help your body temperature come down, or maybe step outside for fresh air (and cold air for the fellow Minnesotans) to help snap out of it and “bring it back”. When you’ve calmed down again, maybe refer back to the thought reframing quick tip to recalibrate your mind to set yourself up for success. “I am in control of my feelings, no matter how difficult my family can be sometimes… I’m doing a great job… I’m grateful to have this opportunity to spend time together, and if I let my feelings get the best of me, I will miss out on these memories, or worse, regret the way I acted and wish I had behaved differently…” Counting down works well too – “Just one more hour, then I can go home and watch The Bachelor in my PJs…”.
There’s a lot of pressure around the holidays which naturally triggers more anxiety for everyone. Pay attention to it, but don’t forget that your mind is the driver here. The bottom line is anxiety is treatable and manageable, and with practice (and maybe a little help from a therapist), you’ll be back and in control of your life in no time. Happy Holidays!