It’s the most stressful time of the year: six simple techniques to managing holiday anxiety

By Jeffrey Lazarus, MD, FAAP

It’s the most wonderful time of the year … or is it? The holidays are typically filled with family and friends, traveling, good food, and fun. And these very things—while often wonderful—can also be potential landmines of decades-old interpersonal conflict, negative patterns, and stress, all of which lead to anxiety for many adults and adolescents.

Often this anxiety manifests itself in physical symptoms, particularly in people who have irritable bowel syndrome, functional abdominal pain, migraines, and chronic daily headaches. People with tic disorders may also see an increase in tic activity during times of increased stress.

Fortunately, for as many potential sources as there may be for your holiday anxiety, there are simple and effective tools to help alleviate them:

  1. Magic Dial: On a scale from 0 to 100 (0 being no anxiety, 100 being the worst anxiety ever), how anxious are you when you think about the holidays and their potential stressors? Now imagine you have a magic dial that can turn down that anxiety to a lower number. Whatever your target number is, visualize dialing it down and practice keeping it there. 
  2. Belly Breathing: When anxiety sets in, you take shallow, rapid breaths from your chest rather than from your belly. Try blowing a pinwheel or bubbles, which forces you to take longer, deeper breaths. Belly breathing is effective because you can’t breathe calmly and feel anxious at the same time. 
  3. Distraction: Go to a place in your mind where you feel happy, safe, comfortable, and in control—daydreaming with a focus. If that place is the beach, practice going to the seashore in your mind as often as you need to feel more centered and calm. 
  4. Visualization: Almost all elite athletes do this, but you don’t have to be an Olympic gymnast to use this technique. Also known as clinical hypnosis, medical hypnosis, guided imagery, mental imagery, and believed-in imagination, it turns out that when you visualize yourself playing soccer well, the same areas of your brain are working as if you’re actually playing soccer. Mental imagery creates muscle memory, and this is also true for anxiety: mental imagery creates mental memory. Visualize the family or social interaction as you wish to experience it, and it will be much easier to re-create that scenario in real life.
  5. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): The fundamental idea behind CBT is that changing the way you think changes the way you feel. When you are anxious, you go into what-if? mode(What if Grandpa is critical of me again?) and often anticipate a poor outcome, even with no evidence to support it. This belief fuels your anxiety, like pouring gasoline on a fire. The first step is to identify the negative thought, then talk back to it and defeat it. For instance, “Even if Grandpa chooses to be critical of me, I am confident in my abilities and life choices, and I can simply excuse myself into the other room to talk with my favorite cousin.”
  6. Medical Hypnosis for Somatic Complaints: Medical hypnosis involves focusing intently on something with a specific goal in mind. If you get chronic, stress-related stomachaches, for example, when you first notice abdominal discomfort, simply put up a stop sign in your mind. Or transfer that stop sign down to your foot, to an imaginary soccer ball, and kick away that stomachache!

Just like any other skill you learn, all of these techniques require practice. The more you practice, the better you get at it and the easier it gets. Start practicing today to help pave the way for a truly wonderful holiday season.