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How to cope with the festive period if you suffer from anxiety

by Thrive Psychology
December 22nd, 2017

It is supposedly the most wonderful time of the year, but Christmas and New Year can also be stressful. It can be particularly tough for those of us that struggle with anxiety, as it is a time when underlying difficulties are more readily triggered. It could be the increased presence of family, it could be the absence of someone who cannot be with us, or it could simply be the time we relax that brings the things we were trying to forget to the surface.

Unfortunately, we are not born with an instruction manual on how our mind and body work. Therefore, we can really struggle to deal with certain events. Central to helping ourselves is calming our fear and anxiety system which is primed to alert us to danger, but can become easily out of sync and troublesome.

Ideally it is there to keep us safe by accelerating our heart rate and speeding our body up, so we can respond quickly to something that could hurt us. It can also make us feel so awful that we want to avoid a situation that it has labelled as dangerous. It can work very well when you need to dodge the car that has just pulled out in front of you, but less well when you become overly stressed or low at a time many people look forward to.

Important to remember

It is important to remember that anxiety is your body’s way of telling you that you could be in danger, much the same as your body sends you messages of hunger or thirst. Anxiety is part of a normal bodily system and not one that you need to blame yourself for having. One of the main reasons one person can experience more anxiety than another is the life experiences that they have had. Our anxiety system is very good at remembering all our bad experiences and using this information to help us avoid a repeat of this experience. It sounds great in theory, but our anxiety system can become highly sensitive and send us signals at the slightest sight of possible danger. This can have us over react and feeling terrible in situations that we, and others, think we ‘should’ be fine in. The result is a crazy making situation that can have you believing something is wrong with you when it is your body just trying to keep you safe.

Such experiences can make anxiety hard to manage because we can easily become critical of ourselves, which feeds the anxiety further. Negative thoughts are one of the main ways our anxiety keeps itself going and when we believe these thoughts it can almost impossible to calm ourselves. They will often come in the form of ‘what if’ scenarios and attacking thoughts, such as ‘I’m useless/worthless/no good…’

Instead of becoming stuck listening to negative thought processes, ask yourself whether they are helpful to you right now. If they are, then use them to look after yourself. If they are not, then stand back from your thoughts and see them as an error message. Take a breath. Be curious about your anxiety rather than critical. With this in mind, you can learn to face anxiety provoking situations rather than avoid them.

5 Tips to help you manage your anxiety over the festive period:

  • Feel free to say no to help you enjoy the festive time, but be sure it is because you really don’t want to go to that New Year’s party rather than your anxiety tell you that you are not good enough to go.
  • Manage your expectations. Sometimes it can be tempting to overcompensate negative thoughts with unrealistic expectations. Unpleasant family dynamics will not necessarily change just because it is Christmas.
  • Have a plan for how you want to enjoy yourself. If the idea of spending hours on end with your family does not work for you then make a plan to limit it to a more manageable time and tell others in advance so their expectations are managed.
  • Use the support you have. When we are afraid we naturally want to go to someone and somewhere safe, so spending more time with people you trust can be a great stress reliever.
  • If you really struggle this festive period, it could be well worth prioritising your mental health for the New Year. Remember, you were not born with an instruction manual on how you work, so do not let those negative thoughts about seeking help dissuade you. There are plenty of resources available and if you believe therapy would be helpful then it is often best to start with visiting your GP and using private professionals to widen your options.

Dr Ricky Barrows is a Clinical Psychologist and runs the Thrive Psychotherapy clinic in Leicester, providing psychological assessment and therapy for common and complex problems.

 

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