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This One’s for All of Us Who Spend the Holidays Secretly Wracked with Anxiety

Last weekend, I found myself hiding out in my car in between my kids’ dance performances. While everyone else gathered to celebrate the success of one show and prepare for the closing night performance, I needed to escape.

Hiding in my car is something I often do when social situations are just too much. Some may see this as arrogance or indifference from the outside looking in; but I see it as self-preservation.

Like so many people, I struggle during the holidays. And while I’m really good at putting on the “I’ve got my sh*t together” face, inside I’m secretly falling apart. Because the truth of the matter is, I’m wired differently; and so are 40 million other Americans. And when it comes to the holidays, the struggle is all too real.

It might not be the most joyful thing to say, but I’ll say it: the holidays make me anxious. And not just your run-of-the-mill, things-are-extra-busy-right-now kind of anxious.

While this time of the year can be anxiety-provoking for everyone, for people like me — who live day in and day out with an anxiety disorder — this means we pile anxiety on top of anxiety.

This disappearing act I sometimes do allows me to take a breather. It might be for a few minutes or it may stretch into hours. But the fact of the matter is, it helps slow down my thoughts, focus my breathing, and avoid a panic attack.

And while I want nothing more than to be a part of every moment, I just can’t do it. My thoughts consume me and often make me so tired. And the worry never seems to end.

Don’t get me wrong — I am excited for the holidays; it just doesn’t look that way. I may seem agitated, but I’m really fearful. I probably look frantic, but I’m desperately trying to calm the spinning thoughts in my head.

And no, I’m not “just stressed.” Stress and anxiety are not the same thing, yet they are often used interchangeably. Yes, I understand that what I’m describing may seem like normal stress that almost everyone feels during the holidays, but mine is different. It never goes away.

For those who live with anxiety, it can get frustrating to be constantly told to just relax and not worry. So many times, people mistake what we are experiencing as stress and try to reassure us that it will pass.

But here’s the thing; we aren’t “just stressed,” and as much as we would love for it to pass, it doesn’t work that way.

Many people will describe anxiety as a feeling of apprehension or fear; a constant state of worry, which is almost always followed by feelings of impending doom. What is so frustrating about all of this is that often the source of uneasiness and worry is not known or recognized — we have no idea what we are worried and fearful about.

Stress, on the other hand, comes and goes and can result from just about any situation or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, nervous, or even anxious.

And if you are anything like me, you know how utterly exhausting it is playing all possible scenarios, conversations, interactions, and outcomes over and over again in your mind weeks ahead of time.

That little voice in my head is constantly asking what’s wrong, what could go wrong, how has it gone wrong?

It’s not always a mental thing, either. I can’t control it, but I do my best to manage it. Often times, when I overreact to a situation, it’s my body that’s deciding to react in a particular way. And when that happens, I know it’s time to take a step back and ask for what I need.

Here’s how I cope — maybe it can be of some help to you, too.

1. I prepare myself to be anxious.

Days will be busy and the holidays will happen. With this in mind, I try my hardest to keep my self-talk positive and remind myself that for better or worse, anxiety is a part of who I am.

2. I pace myself.

I aim to do just a few things well — or maybe even just one thing — so I don’t overwhelm myself. I take that never-ending To-Do list and cross off all but one item. That is the one thing I commit to doing well. (For example, today I chose playing in the snow with my kids and we were rockin’ the snowman contest!)

3. I surround myself with people who have my best interest at heart.

As much as you can, be with people who truly understand you and are not going to add to your anxiety. I say “no” to being with people who point out my anxiety or make negative comments. Instead, I choose to spend my time with friends and family who are accepting and truly get me.

4. I stick to daily routines.

This can be difficult to commit to, but doing a few things the same way each day will actually help ease your anxiety, in my experience. For me, waking up at the same time each morning and exercising helps settle my mind and prepare for the day.

5. I prioritize silence.

Don’t think of this as “me time,” rather, look at it as “necessary to survive time.” I look for opportunities each day to have at least 15-30 minutes of complete silence. Wether that’s going for a run on a trail without headphones or sitting in my car during my kids activities, these moments of silence have been a lifesaver.

6. I have learned to say no.

Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Like my list of picking one thing to do well, I also take that same list and pick three things to say “no” to. Please do yourself a favor and try it — it feels so good.

7. I don’t make any big changes.

Trust me, when you have anxiety during the holidays, it is not the time to try a new medication, remodel a room in your house, or change jobs. For the love of all things merry and bright, don’t set yourself up for disaster. Wait until after the holidays for that.

8. I always make time to exercise and sleep.

This one’s critical. I know the list is long and the thoughts keep racing and unfortunately, exercise and sleep are the first things to go. But if you’re dealing with anxiety, exercise and sleep are crucial in your quest to survive the holidays.

Most importantly though, take care of your needs and be gentle and kind to yourself. It’s obvious I’ve made it through several anxiety-filled holidays by now, but I promise each year does seem to get a bit easier as I learn to manage and ask for what I need. While this daily struggle can feel all-consuming at times, there are moments when it does subside. And those moments are pretty spectacular.

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