Coping With GAD During the Holidays

Worried woman sits on the couch.

JGI Jamie Grill / Getty

The holiday season (the period of time from Thanksgiving until the New Year) is supposed to be a joyous time full of celebrations with family and friends. But for many people, "the most wonderful time of year" brings nothing but holiday anxiety and stress.

While many people become overwhelmed and stressed during the holiday season, if you have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), this time of year can feel downright triggering.

Understanding Generalized Anxiety

It's natural to feel apprehensive about buying the right gifts, traveling away from home, or seeing relatives you haven't seen in a long time. However, when that feeling of apprehension turns into sleepless nights and endless worrying, GAD may be at work.

If you're not sure whether it is your generalized anxiety or just normal holiday worry, ask yourself this: How would a typical, rational person respond in this same situation? If the answer involves much less anxiety and worry than you are experiencing, this may signal a problem.

Stress During the Holidays

As much as we love the holidays, they are undeniably a stressful time of year. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), almost half of all women (44%) and a third of men (31%) report increased stress around the holidays.

Often, we find ourselves buying gifts for people we don't know that well, traveling to see people we don't like that much, and just generally doing things in a compressed manner—it feels like we need to pack in as much as we can. If you have GAD, that feeling can be multiplied. Coping can sometimes feel nearly impossible.

A bigger problem emerges when your expectations of this time of year don't match reality. This can lead to feelings of depression or more anxiety, as you don't "measure up" to your imagined ideal. So, the first step to dealing with holiday anxiety is to start by saying to yourself, "I have no expectations." Repeat that again: "I have no expectations."

The holidays are already a stressful time of year. Throw in a pandemic, and that stress soars to new heights. This added psychological pressure can present a special challenge for those struggling with GAD.

8 Tips for Holiday Survival With GAD

Below are some practical steps you can take to dial down your stress and anxiety leading up to and including the holidays.

Keep It Simple

It's not a contest to see how lavish a gift you can buy or how extravagant of a meal you can cook. Eliminate as many details as you can, so that you have less to worry about. Plan a potluck instead of cooking a whole meal yourself. Buy gift cards for everyone on your holiday gift list. Get comfortable with the idea that you don't have to do everything.

Prioritize Your Health

This time of year, it's easy to forget about your needs and let your health slide. But taking care of yourself reduces your anxiety and improves your overall wellbeing. Make sure you are eating healthy foods, staying physically active, and getting enough sleep. And think twice about overindulging in alcohol—it may actually worsen your anxiety symptoms.

Schedule Worry Time

Don't worry all day every day, or you will soon burn out. Instead, schedule a dedicated time once a day to do nothing but worry for a few minutes. Write down worries as they come to you through the day and then address them during that specific time. Come up with reasonable solutions and write those down too.

Make Time for You

Schedule time in your day to relax. Even 15 minutes alone can give you the energy you need to handle everything that comes your way. Relaxation exercises such as yoga or meditation are often a big help. Or you can find a quiet space to sip on some chamomile tea and burn a scented candle. You can even use your downtime to journal or read a book. It's up to you, just choose something that relaxes your body and calms your mind.

Plan Ahead

Identify your anxiety triggers, and do what you can to plan ahead to avoid them. If you're worried about spending too much money, put together a budget as soon as you can. Similarly, if holiday shopping stresses you out, try to get it over with as soon as possible. If social situations make you uncomfortable, see if any of your friends are attending the same event.

The more time you have to prepare for upcoming events, the less overwhelmed and anxious you'll be.

COVID-19 has made it much more difficult to make and keep travel plans. Simple things like rechecking the departure and arrival times of your flights a few days before your trip can go a long way in easing your travel anxiety.

Just Say "No"

It's okay to say "no" to things that just aren't your scene. But what if you've been invited to something that you absolutely have to attend? Stay long enough for people to remember you were there, and then leave. There's no rule saying you have to stay all night. Let the relatives who like to party continue on into the night.

The pandemic has made declining holiday invitations even more complicated. The key is to be polite but firm. You might say, "I appreciate the invite, but I can't. I'm avoiding in-person gatherings due to COVID-19 right now. How about we plan a virtual hangout soon?"

Create an Anxiety Action Plan

Hope for the best, plan for the worst. It's important to have an action plan going into the holiday season. Determine how you will respond to growing anxiety, such as by practicing anxiety-reducing techniques or following a set course of action regardless of how you feel.

Ask for Support

Remember that it's okay to feel anxious and ask for help. If the holidays are hard for you, let your friends and family know that you might need some extra support.

Practice a secret signal with someone you are close to who can help you during gatherings if you become overwhelmed. Ask for a hug, understanding, unconditional support, or whatever you need that will help. If that's not cutting it, try reaching out to a health professional for additional support and resources.

A Word From Verywell

Everyone feels a bit of holiday anxiety from time to time. If yours is extreme and interfering with your enjoyment of the season, it might be worthwhile to speak to your doctor or mental health professional. Out-of-control anxiety can easily ruin your holiday spirit, but it is also possible to overcome it.

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Article Sources
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  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Recognizing holiday triggers of trauma. Updated April 30, 2020.

  2. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Generalized anxiety disorder.

  3. American Psychological Association. APA survey shows holiday stress putting women's health at risk. Published December 12, 2006.

  4. Smith JP, Randall CL. Anxiety and alcohol use disorders: comorbidity and treatment considerations. Alcohol Res. 2012;34(4):414-431.

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