Coping With GAD During the Holidays

Worried woman sits on the couch.
Getty / JGI Jamie Grill

Holiday anxiety tends to appear at the same time each year. In North America, that is usually right before Thanksgiving and extending just past New Year's Day. 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.

However, if you've already been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, it's possible you know that your anxiety is out of control but feel powerless to do anything about it.

During the holiday season, it is important to put a stress reduction plan together to keep yourself even keel.

Stress During the Holidays

As much as we love the holidays, they are undeniably a stressful time of year. 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."

10 Tips for Holiday Survival With GAD

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 list. Say "no" if you feel your schedule filling up too quickly.

Be Healthy: It's easy this time of year to let your health slide. Do the opposite and make sure you are eating healthy food, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, and engaging in regular exercise. Avoid caffeine, too.

Limit Worry Time: Don't worry all day every day, or you will soon burn out. Set aside a specific time to worry each day. 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.

Create Relaxation Time: Schedule time in your day for relaxation exercises such as yoga or meditation. Even a short 15-minute break is better than nothing. Drink a cup of chamomile tea if you can't break away from your desk or place an essential oil diffuser with lavender near your entryway.

Plan Ahead: Within reason, take steps to plan your schedule. Confirm travel details and leave yourself extra time to reduce worry and anxiety. Find out who will be at events ahead of time, and if you have children who are anxious, let them know too.

Find Something to Enjoy: Find something about the holidays that you really enjoy, and look forward to it. Bake cookies or plan a trip somewhere new. It's up to you, but choose something that inspires you and creates excitement and desire.

Ask for Support: Let those around you know that you might need extra support at this time of year. 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.

Appear and Then Disappear: Rather than turn down invitations, make an appearance. Arrive early, help out in the kitchen, and leave when you feel ready. Let the relatives who like to party continue on into the night—you don't have to stay. Plus, if shopping creates anxiety, show up when the doors open and be the first one out. And, do it a month early if you can.

Plan Your Anxious Response: Do you have your anxious response ready? Have a plan of 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.

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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  1. SAMHSA. Recognizing holiday triggers. Updated April 16, 2019.

  2. ADAA. Generalized anxiety disorder.

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