It’s the most wonderful time of the year … except when it isn’t.
For one out of every five people you meet (or for you), it may not be a cheerful time. That person may be secretly racked with anxiety and want nothing more than to go hide under a blanket for the rest of the day.
When I say, “racked with anxiety,” I’m not talking about bills or being stressed out by your in-laws. An anxiety disorder is a legitimate mental illness that can make your daily life a struggle. That struggle tends to become harder during the holidays.
Why is that? It could be the expectations – to act a certain way, to give the right gift, to show up at every event. Or, it could be memories of lost loved ones or trauma.
The three most common anxiety disorders are generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder (PD), and social anxiety disorder. Women are twice as likely to be affected than men by either GAD and PD. They are equally as likely to have social anxiety disorder.
What does anxiety feel like?
Oh no! I forgot to send my boss a Christmas card! What if they hate me now? What if they realize that I’m not really as competent as they think I am; will they fire me? And if they fire me, how will I buy my daughter that toy she put on her Christmas list for Santa? And, if I don’t get her that toy, is she going to think Santa is not real and become completely disillusioned?
This may sound irrational, but those what-ifs are completely real to someone who has GAD. It’s as if you’re worried about everything all the time. That worry can make you feel frozen like you’re stuck in perpetual inner turmoil. It comes with physical symptoms, too: restlessness, headaches, sleeplessness, irritability, memory problems, stomach pain, etc.
I can’t breathe! There’s something wrong with me! Am I having a heart attack? I CAN’T BREATHE!
When you have a panic attack, also known as an anxiety attack, it comes out of nowhere. Suddenly, you’re overwhelmed by fear. Your heart races, you can’t breathe, you feel dizzy. Often, they only last for a few minutes. But having one can make you worry about having another one. People who have recurrent panic attacks may start avoiding places or entire situations out of fear of having another one.
Why did I have to come to this office Christmas party? Everybody is staring at me. I really don’t want to go and talk to people. They're all going to judge me. I won’t be funny enough or smart enough and they’ll all talk about me around the water cooler tomorrow. I feel sick; I’m just gonna go home.
No, people with true social anxiety aren’t just shy. When meeting new people, if you have social phobia you may be so afraid that you can’t speak. The thought of going to a party fills you with dread. Physically, social anxiety can make you dizzy, give you a headache or even diarrhea.
Dealing with anxiety during the holidays
If you or a loved one may suffer from an anxiety disorder, talk to a medical professional. With therapy and medication, these conditions are manageable. However, even if you have sought medical advice, the holidays can amp up your symptoms.
Here are a few things that might help:
Take care of the basics: sleep, eat, exercise. Not getting enough of any one of these things can significantly affect your ability to cope with your anxiety.
Tune in and drop out: Step outside, breathe and tune into your five senses. Can you feel the wind in your hair? Are there crickets chirping? What do you smell, see, taste? A simple break from the hectic world will help ground you. Then you can focus on the present moment (and not all of those things that could go wrong).
Communicate: Tell the people close to you how you’re feeling. Let them know that sometimes you may have to step away and take a breath. If you don’t have to worry about hurting a loved one’s feelings, that’s one less thing to worry about.
Most of all, remember that you don’t have to: be happy all the time, say yes to everything, give everyone the perfect gift, go to every party, and always look amazing.
Written by Natasha Bright, a contributing writer for UMiami Health News. Reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Nicole Mavrides, a psychiatrist with the University of Miami Health System.