The holiday season should be a festive one filled with social gatherings, family events, and an overall sense of happiness and gratitude. Unfortunately, the reality is that many people find this time of year extremely stressful and they overindulge in food, spending, and substances.  Family gatherings may not always look like the happy get-togethers sometimes portrayed on television and, as a result, many people experience symptoms of both anxiety and depression.

  • Here are five things that will help you avoid the holiday blues:
  1. Stay Balanced
  •  Avoid overindulging in food, drink, drugs, and spending. Take some time each day for yourself and get plenty of sleep.  Think about what thoughts or situations can throw you off balance. Perhaps crowds, too much social contact or those uncomfortable family gatherings adversely affect your mood.  Learn to identify your personal symptoms of stress so that you can take prompt action and protect your mood.
  1. Remain Socially Connected
  • The holidays can sometimes simply be overwhelming, especially if we are experiencing too much social contact. Despite the urge to withdraw it is critical to remain connected to that small circle of social contacts that constitute your support system. It may simply take reaching out with a quick call or a text to express that you are feeling tired or sad. Many people are reluctant to let others know they are uncomfortable or in pain, but almost everyone feels happy when they can be there for a friend. They may not have a solution (you may not want them to suggest one!) but just being heard is therapeutic.
  1. Manage Expectations
  •  We can sometimes add stress to the holidays by not managing our expectations well.  What are your specific plans for Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve? It’s best not to wait until the last minute to make plans simply because what actually happens may not match your expectation of what the experience should be. If you anticipate conflict at a family gathering you may want to decline the invitation, or bring along a friend. Be aware of special pitfalls the holidays hold for you and create a plan to deal with them well in advance.  Finally, remember that communicating your needs is important for a pleasant and meaningful holiday season. If you need time alone, declare yourself. If you need company, reach out.
  1. Manage attitudes
  •  Negative mindsets frequently occur during the holidays. Become aware of some of your own patterns from the past. Perhaps you sadly remember the last holiday you had with someone who has passed, or you may not be able to be with someone special this year.  Actively counter these negative thoughts with positive, affirming ones. Creating a brief gratitude list can often neutralize negative moods. Plan some “corrective mechanisms” that can get you back on track. These might include taking a nice, long bath, a walk out in nature, a drive to look at holiday lights, or a quiet evening at home watching a Christmas classic. Take care of yourself.
  1. Move out of yourself
  •   Perhaps the single biggest trap during the holidays is simply getting too wrapped up in yourself. Taking a break from your problems and concerns may be therapeutic for you and helpful for someone else. Giving and receiving are what the holiday spirit is really all about. Take some time to volunteer during the season. Do something for someone else. Sponsor a disadvantaged family’s Christmas dinner or work at an organization that serves those in need during this season.  Getting out of yourself is an extremely effective way to elevate your mood and be or service at the same time.
  •            There is no doubt that this season can be tough for many people but with the right tools it can be the special time of year that it should be for all of us. Happy holidays!



High Anxiety

    For three hours the finger never stopped.  It grabbed a lock of dark hair, expertly spun it around four or five times, rolled it between thumb and finger for a few seconds, released it, and then began the process all over again.  I witnessed this strange behavior from my airplane seat, captive to the nervous antics of the passenger in front of me.  Only the top of his tortured head was visible, along with that relentless finger.

    The poor guy was in the throes of an anxiety disorder called Trichotillomania (use that in a sentence and impress your friends!), an irresistible urge to pull one’s hair.    And he wasn’t the only one with symptoms of anxiety.  We were all traveling on a recent day when yet another financial giant had collapsed, there was a general mood of uneasiness, and it seemed that we were all being pulled helplessly into very frightening territory.  At the airport the mood was somber, people were unusually quiet, and many stood around watching the television monitors broadcasting endless bad news and dire warnings.

    It seemed that Mel Brook’s joke about the very, very nervous really captured what we were all experiencing and it reminded me of some basic skills I teach patients to help them deal with anxiety.  I thought it would be useful to list a few of them here.

    1. What can I control?
     A great deal of energy gets consumed compulsively worrying about things in the past, things in the future, and generally things over which we have no control.  This is frustrating as well as emotionally and physically harmful. It is very useful to determine where you actually have some influence over any given situation.  It may be that choices are truly limited, but there is usually something we can do to assert a sense of empowerment.  Even the act of making lists to organize our plans can help us regain a sense of control.       

    2. Take action, then let go of the results
     Once you determine where you can be effective take deliberate action.  Don’t shoot from the hip, but also be wary of becoming paralyzed, a trap experienced by many people experiencing anxiety.  Remember that doing nothing is in fact an action, and the results may not be in your best interest.  Once you’ve done what you can do, monitor the results and re-evaluate where you go from there.  Twelve step programs utilize the Serenity Prayer which captures this beautifully: 

         God grant me the serenity 
         to accept the things I cannot change; 
         courage to change the things I can;
         and wisdom to know the difference.     

    3. Identify your safe place
 Think of this as your “safe word” when life’s scenes gets a little too intense.  Select a place you can imagine in your mind that is soothing, calming, and comforting.  It can be the beach, or the woods, or a mountaintop – whatever works for you.  Anchor this spot in your imagination with as many specifics as you can: What time of day is it? What is the season and the temperature?  Is there a breeze?  What colors do you see? Are there sounds?  Can you smell grass, or leaves, or the sea?  Once you have determined your safe place, practice going there until it becomes effortless.  It works because your mind can only focus on one thing at a time and it’s easily distracted.  Spending a few seconds there can have remarkable physiological and emotional effects, actually calming nerves, reducing blood pressure, even averting panic attacks.  I use this when working with patients who have experienced trauma – it’s powerful. 

     Like it or not, anxious situations seem here to stay.  The more tools we have to deal with them, the more we’ll be able to move through life with some sense of serenity, not to mention (at least for some) a full head of hair.