Holiday Anxiety: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Does ‘White Christmas’ give you white knuckles?

By Lisa Esposito | December 19, 2014

Gifts, parties, family feasts and champagne countdowns – who doesn’t love the holidays? But for a lot of people, anxiety piles up with the presents, topped by a bright red bow. If your stocking is stuffed with holiday stress, these mental health tips can help.

Why So Anxious?

Money stress, social pressures and family turmoil are the flip sides to holiday happiness.

“People feel a lot of financial stress around the holidays because they overspend and suddenly there’s an expectation that they need to spend more,” says Erin Olivo, a clinical psychologist and assistant clinical professor at Columbia University.

And all that family togetherness? “A lot of people don’t have happy times with their families,” Olivo says. “Or simply just don’t feel joyous at this time of year based on what’s going on in their life. There’s this pressure, this idea that we’re supposed to feel merry. And that sets people up.”

Perfection Anxiety

Martha Stewart, meet Santa Clause. “A lot of people have a huge uptick in their perfectionism around the holidays,” says Sally Winston, a clinical psychologist and co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland.

“You’ve got to get the perfect present,” she says. “You have to set the perfect table. Everybody has to have the perfect time. You have to fit into your perfect Christmas outfit exactly right.” That lovely tablecloth and the holiday candles in silver candlesticks may actually up the anxiety ante. Ritual and formality can take the fun out of a celebration, Winston says.

“Most people white-knuckle their way through Christmas,” she says. “They’re holding their breath and working hard to try and pretend they’re having a good time.” But, she adds, “For many people, most of the suffering is in the anticipation,” and when the party starts, they end up having fun.

Family Fraught

Olivo recently had a patient tell her he didn’t know why he was so on edge. “You’re going home for the holidays, aren’t you?” was all she had to ask. That’s when patients worry about getting sucked back into family dynamics, she says, making them feel overwhelmed and anxious.

Everyone has those relatives they dread seeing each year, Winston says, including that “crazy” uncle who draws you into ritual arguments and says the most irritating things.

This year, go with a new attitude, she suggests – one of detachment. If you expect someone to say ridiculous things, try counting them – one point for “you’ve gained weight” – instead of commenting. Or, go with the mindset that you’re collecting juicy dialogue for a short story.

Olivo says she talks to patients about how to go home and maintain their own centers and cope with whatever’s going to come up. Give yourself an exit strategy, she advises. Or shorten your trip from a whole week to just Christmas and the day after. Taking a friend along can provide moral support and a buffer. “People are on their best behavior when you bring a new person into the situation – usually,” she says.

Make New Traditions

Sometime you need to carve out a different kind of holiday. “There’s that moment when people are sitting at their family dinner and they just feel like, ‘Yeah, I can’t keep doing this – I come here and feel miserable,’” Olivo says. As a child and teen, you didn’t have much choice about family obligations. But as an adult, you can create your own holiday.

“Especially for the people who are like, ‘I’m going to look on Facebook and everybody’s going to have all these great pictures of family traditions – and ours stink,’” she says. “Well, then you know what – come up with a tradition,” she says. “If you’ve always dreamed of having a Christmas tree – get a Christmas tree.

New Year’s Angst

If your New Year’s isn’t like a scene from Gatsby – with bubbly and fireworks and that special someone – it can make you feel anxious, too.

“The most common anxiety thing I hear about New Year’s is, ‘I’m supposed to have a terrific date and the most wonderful night, and I have nobody to go out with and I hate myself,’” Winston says. That’s a huge disconnect, she says, when the truth is that most people barely make it to midnight before they go to bed.

“If you decide you’re not going to go barhopping with a group of drunken people, it doesn’t mean you necessarily have to stay home alone in your pajamas and eat four boxes of cookies,” Winston says. “It could be there’s somebody else you know who’s not having such a great New Year’s, and you could get together with them at home and watch a movie.”

Over-the-Top Anxiety

When should you seek out a psychologist or other mental health professional for holiday-related anxiety? Same as for any psychological or emotional issues.

If you’re having panic attacks; if you’re so anxious that you’re beginning to avoid things that you don’t really want to avoid – you just feel like you can’t manage them,” Winston says. “If you’re having trouble sleeping or eating; if you are pulling away or isolating yourself more than you want to because you’re afraid of your own anxiety.”

Let People Know

“Sometimes shifting focus to other people helps us feel better about our own pain,” Olivo says. That could be responding to a needy child’s letter to Santa with a gift, or sending a card to a family member who doesn’t get many.

When you’ve lost an important person in your life, holidays can be extra stressful, Olivo says. Whatever’s behind your anxiety, she adds, “It helps to share with the people you’re close to: ‘This isn’t an easy time for me.’ Then you can still go to the party, but nobody’s going to expect you to be the life of that party.”