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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Strategies for Managing Stress at the Holidays

For people prone to anxiety, the holiday season may be stressful as well as exciting. The subjective feelings of stress may interfere with the ability to be mentally present with family members and to enjoy the fine food and break from work. There are many reasons for anxiety related to work, finances, family, travel, and entertaining. We may feel pulled in different directions or unable to get everything done that is expected of us. We may not have planned in advance, leading to last minute panic about getting everything ready in time. People who are alone or away from extended family during the holidays may feel lonely and anxious about arrangements for the holiday. Below are some common sources of anxiety and ways to adapt our thought processes to manage them better.

(1) Too Many Demands
November means the end of the year is almost upon us. This can cause anxiety because we may not have met our work goals yet. Work may have piled up or we may have procrastinated and now we're running out of time. Unexpected demands may emerge because others have been procrastinating too. The increased crowds and people on the road or people being out of the office make it harder to get anything done. Additionally, we may be planning festivities, sending out cards, or shopping for gifts, all of which distract us from working. With new austerity policies, not everybody will have the whole weekend off work. This can lead to envy or resentment when we think that everybody else is out celebrating or family members may be disappointed by our absence.

(2) Finances
In these difficult economic times, most people are stretched financially. Property tax season seems to come all too soon and there may be presents to buy, the cost of entertainment or travel. Try to make choices about money that reflect your family's values and priorities and that take into account the realities of your situation. Children enjoy spending engaged time with parents more than they do expensive gifts. One or two special gifts is all that is needed. kids don't need hundreds of toys to play with. Cooking together with kids can create special family memories without much cost. Cut travel costs by going by car, staying with friends or relatives, or taking advantage of special deals. To reduce anxiety, make your choices and feel good about them, without feeling guilty or second-guessing yourself. And have realistic standards. Your holidays can be good enough. They don't have to be perfect. Most importantly, try to enjoy the moment and the company of friends and relatives or the break from your regular routine. Reflect on your blessings such as health and family and take time to feel gratitude.

(3) Crowds and Travel Delays
Unfortunately, there is often nothing you can do about these sources of stress except planning to do shopping early and booking the first flight of the day. If you face unavoidable lines or delays, this is a good time to use distraction or be mindful. Accept that there's nothing you can do about the situation and try to stay in the moment and relax. Or practice distraction by bringing a book to read or some games for kids to play. Or use the time to call a friend or make a to do list. Alternatively, you can plan a staycation and avoid all the travel stress. If you suffer from panic attacks or agoraphobia, try to minimize exposure to crowds and practice coping strategies such as deep breathing or thinking reassuring thoughts.

(4) Coping Strategies

To cope with anxiety, say to yourself "What's the worst that can happen if I don't get this done in time?" Most of the time, the consequences will be bearable and not the end of the world. Although this isn't a desired outcome, it's important to reduce our worry about not getting things done so it doesn't interfere with our concentration. We may be able to negotiate deadline extensions. If this isn't possible, we may be able to get work done by delegating, paying for services, or asking for help from others. We can divide tasks into essentials like ordering the turkey versus less essential tasks such as folding the napkins perfectly, and prioritize the essential ones. Scheduling one's time and taking advantage of 20-30 minute breaks between appointment to get small tasks done will prevent things from piling up. Remember to breathe and stretch at regular intervals to reduce muscle tension. Try not to miss your time at the gym or your exercise. Aerobic exercise can improve our ability to focus amidst distractions. Reducing perfectionism and just getting things out is another useful strategy for less important tasks. Its not important to have perfect handwriting on every holiday card or to send cards to every acquaintance. Also, remember that the point of the holiday is to feel gratitude for what we have, so make sure you take some time to check in with yourself and count your blessings.

Wishing you a healthy and happy holiday season. If you live in Marin County or San Francisco and need psychotherapy services, please visit my website at I have a sliding scale of fees and use evidence-based cognitive-behavioral and mindful strategies to treat anxiety and related mental health problems.
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