Freeing Your Holidays (and Yourself) From Anxiety: 6 Steps to Having More Joy and Less Stress

The clock is ticking toward Thanksgiving and the holidays beyond, and two very different feelings are flashing on your emotional news feed: impending joy and impending doom.

OK, maybe doom is overstating it; dread may be closer to the mark. But let’s face it, many of us are finding ourselves up at 3:00 in the morning checking our to-do lists and reviewing incessantly the parade of possible catastrophes: “Will my brined turkey be a disaster?” “Will everyone be happy with their gifts?” “How much weight (and debt) am I going to gain?” “What if my family doesn’t get along?” “What if I’m not ready?” “What if I totally fail?!” Wait, are we preparing for the holidays — or final exams?

It doesn’t have to be this way.

It’s time to change our relationship with the holidays. We don’t have to break up with them, but just know that as with all things anxiety, the holidays aren’t the problem; it’s the story in our head about the holidays that needs to change.

So, don’t gather up the mistletoe or menorahs, waiting for that starting gun to say: “On your mark, get set, stress!” Instead, put down the supplies, take off your running shoes, and change your expectations.

The holidays are not a control-freak boss or a mother-in-law poised with a perfection-sensor critiquing your every move — more likely, you’re doing that number on yourself. The holidays are an opportunity — your opportunity — to acknowledge and celebrate in the ways that you would like.

So, this year, give a gift to yourself. Be daring. Choose how you want to celebrate this season. Yes, you do have many choices in the matter. Whether that’s a tailgating party, a marathon family reading of The Hobbit, or the more traditional hot cider in front of the fire, don’t let the anxious chatter — “You should, you must, you’ve failed!” — ruin it for you. Find your own meaning, there are no right or wrong answers. If it’s real to you, it’s real.

Here are six ways to help you have more joy and less stress this holiday season:

Get Specific and Fact-Check Your Worry

If the mantra in your head is: “I have to make this the most perfect holiday ever,” it’s time to release yourself from the impossible. The constant worry that this thought generates is sure to distract you — if not derail you — from enjoying what is. Take a minute and on one side of a piece of a paper write down what your worries are about the holidays. Your worst picture of what could go wrong. Then, on the other side of the page, write down your answers to a different question: What do you think will actually happen? Or, put another way: The next morning, how do you think things will have actually turned out? Pick up the paper and read it from time to time, then notice what happens in your body when you read your answers to those second questions. It’s like someone unplugged you from the stress machine and you’ve tapped into the truth. Make sure there’s room for reality in your head and at your holiday table.

Don’t Script, Live

If you back up and look at the most cherished moments from holiday times in the past — the raucous game of charades or football, the quiet moment when everyone was happily entertaining themselves in the living room while the snow was falling out the window. What happened before those moments? It wasn’t that anyone said, “Hey, let’s make memories here — let’s all sit in the living room and occupy ourselves contentedly, okay?” Things just evolved. So as much as it is great to have plans and ideas, flexibility, spontaneity and being open to what might happen provide the greatest possibilities.

Let the Mistakes Be… New Traditions?

Forgot the cranberry sauce? Maybe a guest has a great idea for how to innovate an alternative. Miscounted the spaces at the table? A Christmas picnic or a lighthearted impromptu game of musical chairs before sitting for dinner might be the memory that sticks for people — and may give birth to a new tradition.

One holiday bonding experience happened one year when we were hosting Christmas dinner for friends and discovered that our kitchen had a mouse. We called our friends and asked if we could bring food to their house and cook there. The last-minute change, the pulling together in a pinch, solidified our friendship. Mistakes and glitches are often the shortest distance between two people if you have the right spirit about it.

Pace Yourself and Schedule in Down-Time

Having a week off for the holidays can feel like winning the lottery: You’re flush with time and yet, like winning the lottery, when you start divvying up the pot of who is going to get what– or, in holiday break terms, who you’re going to see when — you may end up feeling broke, with nothing left for you. Rather than end winter vacation feeling like you need a vacation, do what marathoners do. Pace yourself. Schedule in some coasting time. Would you like to sit and read the paper (or similar) once during the holidays? Put it in your calendar. Block out the time and enjoy. Repeat when possible.

Finding Joy: Savoring the Moment

I like to think about the one thing that I want to notice during the holidays. Yes, I know I’m scripting it ahead, but bear with me — my ability to live in a clutch-free or cling-free manner of zen present-centeredness is still under construction. For me, it’s noticing that moment at the holiday table when everyone is contentedly eating and conversation is flowing and my only wish is exactly what I am experiencing right then. Sometimes that picture doesn’t happen, and something else happens that hits that spot. Be on the look out for that one moment where you stop worrying about what’s next and you’re thoroughly savoring what is.

Turn the Focus Outward: Help Others

Anxiety and worry turn the focus inward — the critic in your head has a strong bias toward “that’s not good enough.” Unplug that microphone, get out of the spotlight and focus on others: Volunteer time if you’ve got it, contribute if you don’t. It doesn’t have to be a pot of gold, donating clothing or canned goods can make a great difference to a family in need.

So this year, forego the worry and give yourself more breathing room. In so doing, you will give joy, gratitude, and contentedness a wider berth to find their way into your life for the holidays and beyond.


Copyright Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety (DaCapo, 2012).

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