Holidays can bring up a lot of anxiety – especially for people in recovery from substance abuse and mental health conditions. One reason for increased anxiety is that holiday activities may include gatherings with your family of origin (the family you grew up in – parents, siblings and others who lived with you). This may be stressful because of traumas you experienced at their hands, including abuse (emotional, physical and/or sexual), dysfunction, or because they’re abusing substances. There might be communication styles that are triggering, such as passive-aggressive styles of communication, or even aggressive styles of communication. These can be painful reminders of negative interactions from childhood.
Society also puts certain expectations on us around the holidays. These can include pressure to get together with family members, even if the relationships are unhealthy; an expectation to attend religious services that might include wine; pressure to act upbeat and festive; and an expectation to spend large amounts of money on gifts or gatherings that can put heavy stress on your budget.
How to Deal With Holiday Anxiety
It’s not likely you’ll be able to avoid all sources of anxiety this holiday season, but you can take steps to lessen anxiety-provoking situations and take care of yourself. Here are suggestions for how to deal with holiday anxiety.
Be aware of triggers
Practice good self-awareness. Be conscious of your triggers and determine whether or not you should expose yourself to them. If you do decide to place yourself in situations that might cause anxiety or tempt you to cope using substances, think about what precautions you can put in place to take care of yourself and prevent destructive behaviors.
Increase self-help meetings
Connect with peers who can relate to what you’re going through. Increase attendance at any support groups you’re a part of such as social anxiety groups, Co-Dependents Anonymous or 12-step meetings. Have a list of times and locations readily available so you can find support quickly if triggers arise.
Connect with support people
Use your support network. Make a list of people you can call on if you’re feeling triggered or distressed. Schedule time to spend with them even before a crisis arises. Your support people may include trusted individuals like a therapist, pastor, priest, spouse, sponsor or friends.
Have an “escape plan”
Whether it’s an office party or family gathering, always have an escape plan you can put into action if you’re struggling. Maybe this is a well-timed text or phone call from a friend so you can say you have an emergency and leave. Perhaps line up some alternative plans that will allow you to excuse yourself early if needed. You can also simply say that you’re not feeling well. After all, if you’re feeling triggered, that is a valid statement.
Create a “safe word”
Come up with a word you can say to a support person if you find yourself in a situation that becomes triggering. The safe word is the way you’ll signal to that person that you need to leave.
Practice good self-care
Draw on healthy coping mechanisms to alleviate stress and keep your mind, body and spirit healthy. Good self-care may include activities like exercise, meditation, yoga, massages, proper nutrition, taking prescribed medications, participating in hobbies and getting plenty of sleep.
Don’t get caught up in expectations from others or self-imposed expectations this holiday season. What’s most important is taking care of yourself and safeguarding your sobriety and mental health. Plan ahead for triggers, and remember that you have a choice as to what situations you place yourself in and whom you spend time with over the holidays.
By Kate Sprague, LCSW, CCTP, Therapist at Clarity Way