Holidays can be stressful, whether you struggle with anxiety or not. But with a sensitive nervous system, all of the hustle and bustle of the season can be the tipping point that sends you into full-blown panic. Here are my tips on how to survive the holidays, and what to do if panic does attack.
1. Pace yourself
Christmas is a time of giving and receiving. Don’t give all of your energy to buying and wrapping presents, standing in lines, driving from mall to mall, and attending every party you’re invited to attend. All of these activities will zap whatever energy you’ve got if you don’t allow yourself downtime. Here’s where the receiving comes in. Receive the gift of slacking off in front of the television with a bowl of popcorn. Receive the gift of letting other people do some of the shlepping around. Receive the gift of taking a nap, or a long hot bath, or drinking a glass of wine, your feet in slippers, a good book at hand. And forget about perfection. Kick that demon to the curb. Whatever gift you choose, whatever meal you plan, is good enough.
2. Take care
Are you eating well? Exercising? Getting enough sleep? Spending time in nature or in some other sacred space? You’ll need to make an extra effort to take care of yourself when the stress of holidays is upon you. Sweets are plentiful, but limit the sugar, as it feeds anxiety. Ditto for caffeine. Cold weather may keep you indoors, but you can still do some stretching, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, calisthenics, or just dance around the living room in your pjs to release tension. Maintain a sleep schedule, and include a pre-sleep ritual like turning off the tv, cell phone and computer a half hour before you slip under the covers. And try to keep the volume down on the radio. Noise batters the nerves, too.
3. Slow down
Tis’ the season to feel rushed. What’s a body to do? Sloooooooow doooooooown. Make all of your movements slower. Walk, talk, whatever it is you’re doing, do it at a more leisurely pace. This will help to calm your heart, unclench your muscles, and lower your blood pressure.
4. Be mindful
Instead of thinking about all of the tasks ahead of you, bring your attention to the present moment. Focus on what you’re doing, like a camera zooming in for a close-up. Time will seem to expand, and you’ll feel less overwhelmed.
5. Ask for help
Don’t try to cook the whole meal, hang all the decorations, do all the dishes, or anything else involved in setting the scene, all by yourself. If others offer, accept their help. If they don’t, then prod those lazy duffs off the couch and march them into the kitchen. Many hands make for light work. And it’s a lot more fun.
6. If panic attacks, duck
Not under the table, into the fetal position. Duck out—to the bathroom, for some deep breathing. Step outside for some fresh air and a larger perspective. Take a walk, play with the kids. Or just start in on those dishes in the kitchen.
7. Express what you’re feeling
It’s probably not a good idea, as you’re serving the ham, to announce to the room: “I’m having a panic attack.” But you might want to seek out someone you trust and tell them what’s going on. Why? It lets off some of the pressure that anxiety builds up. You don’t have to suffer alone.
8. Talk to somebody who’s sympathetic
Not the family member who’s liable to say: “Snap out of it!” Not the relative who’s uncomfortable with his own emotions, let alone yours. Instead, find someone who understands what you’re going through. It’s a good bet that over half the people gathered together (probably more) deal with anxiety. You only need to find one of those fellow sufferers to talk to. Pull that person aside and say: “I’m feeling anxious right now and can’t seem to shake it.”
9. Distract yourself
Count how many red and green objects are in the room. Juggle the Christmas tree ornaments. Take notes on how your family behaves after a few stiff drinks. You can use the information in your next novel. Find someone who looks more frazzled than you, and do something to make them feel less so. Try not to make it all about you, or your anxiety, even though it feels that way.
10. Be the observer
Observe the action going on around you as if you are the calm, still center of the storm. Observe your panic go up and down in intensity. Observe yourself observing yourself, as if you are standing in the back of a movie theater, watching yourself in the third row, watching your life on the screen.
Remember…this too will pass. The anxiety, the day. And when it does, pat yourself on the back for having survived.