How are you feeling about Christmas? Are you excitedly looking forward to the festive season, or are you feeling utterly overwhelmed thinking about how you are going to deal with Christmas anxiety?
For many of us, we are so caught up in our quest and preoccupation to fulfil the ‘perfect Christmas’, while also juggling our hectic lives, that we actually miss out on the joy surrounding the Christmas festivities. For others, the plethora of activity – bombarding us from every angle – only serves to intensify our anxiety over feeling lonely.
The Christmas spirit is in full swing – carol singers at the train station, children’s nativity plays, twinkling Christmas lights on the high street and steaming mulled wine appearing at the end of the bar. But here’s the thing, although all the Christmas feels are going on around you, are you present, enjoying the moment, taking it all in, or are your thoughts elsewhere? Are you thinking about the work project that’s keeping you up at night, the best shortcrust pastry recipe for your mince pies, and the donkey costume you need to find before Wednesday’s nativity? Or perhaps the thought of being alone at Christmas is overshadowing everything else, refusing to allow you the space to embrace any of the sparkle and light.
Are you suffering with anxiety?
When it comes to Christmas, (and life in general), we all suffer from some level of anxiety. Life means facing demands and changes that will make us feel a bit stressed. This is normal. It’s even more likely if you live in a busy city, where people often feel less connected, with a greater sense of isolation.
The difference between feeling anxious in response to a particular stressor – perhaps a new job, or an exam – and an anxiety disorder, is that in the case of the latter, there is no let up. For those suffering with an anxiety disorder, the feeling of anxiousness rarely passes, and they are constantly battling against their ‘Critical Inner Voice’ (or at this time of year, ‘The Christmas Grinch’ as I like to think of it).
If you suffer with anxiety, you’ll be all too familiar with your Critical Inner Voice. It’s the negative voice in your head. The part that nags and judges you. It says things like you’re not smart enough and not good enough. If you’re feeling lonely, it tells you that you don’t deserve to feel loved.
How does anxiety make you feel?
Anxiety is a persistent pre-occupation with the feelings of nervousness, worry, restlessness and unease, while often holding you in a hyper-alert state. Anxiety can be all encompassing; that is, when it is around, it is virtually impossible to focus on anything else. This means it prevents you from engaging in life in a meaningful way and can linger for a long period of time.
For some people, the Critical Inner Voice can make you feel so alone and small, that you feel unable to leave the house. It’s like having an internal bully. A critical and demanding voice that makes you feel like a failure. If this ‘voice’ were a real person, you would probably choose to stay away from him or her, but what options do you have when that voice is in your head and it feels like there is no escaping it?
Coping with anxiety
I’ve had clients who try to hide-away and avoid their Critical Inner Voice, others who attempt to numb the voice through drugs or alcohol and some who submit to their Critical Voice and its punitive messages. Others attempt to send the Christmas Grinch packing back to Mount Crumpet by trying to prove him/her wrong by constantly striving for perfectionism.
To the outside world, perfectionists appear to have all the plates spinning, but they rarely experience a sense of being settled. They are always ‘on’. They constantly feel as though they are not living up to their vision of ‘perfect’ and exhaust themselves in their mission to achieve it.
Five techniques to help you deal with Christmas anxiety
Wouldn’t it be nice – a relief even – to give yourself a break and immerse yourself in the joy of Christmas? Is it possible? Yes, it is. I’m going to teach you how.
If you suffer with anxiety, and feel that it is intensifying as we approach the festivities, please try one, or a combination of, these techniques, which are aimed at bringing you back to the present, focusing on the moment and feeling calm. We make bad decisions when we feel too anxious, so Iet’s allow ourselves time to pause, step outside of our thoughts, make sense of them and then try again.
1. Power over your thoughts, rather than feeling overpowered
Start by ‘defusing’ from your thoughts. This means stepping back from them and creating some distance. Remember that you are not your thoughts and that your thoughts are not facts; they are really just streaming words passing through your mind. Learning to defuse is a powerful way of managing anxiety, and there are numerous techniques you can try in order to do this. This is a wonderful resource with several exercises for you to try.
2. Stand up to your Critical Inner Voice
Once you can defuse a bit, you can see the Grinch as PART of you, rather than ALL of you. Can you create a face or an image to represent that critical part that bullies you? Try to talk back to that Christmas Grinch: replace ‘you can’t‘, with ‘I can’.
3. Lighten your mental load and be kind to yourself
Prioritise, and try to drop the idea of ‘perfect’. For example, replace ‘I must go to Midnight Mass’, with ‘It would be nice if we went to Midnight Mass’ and take the pressure off.
4. Manage your Christmas anxiety with mindfulness
When we’re overwhelmed with anxiety, it is incredibly hard to think clearly. To be able to separate yourself from your thoughts takes practise. Your mind needs training, just as your body does.
Imagine your mind is like a little puppy. You take your new puppy for a walk and he keeps running off into the bushes. You call him back. He returns. Then he’s off to the bushes again. You call him back. He returns. Eventually, through you repeatedly calling him back, he learns to come back to you more easily. This is how mindfulness works. It takes regular practice, but doing so will strengthen your ability to bring your thoughts and your mind back to the present and focus on one task at a time.
Personally, I don’t have the patience for long and formal mindfulness practices (can you see I err on the anxious end of the spectrum?). Thankfully, shorter and more informal practices are also tremendously effective and you can you can practise them anywhere.
I think the bathtub is a great place to start. We all bath or shower, so it’s an everyday place we can put aside for a bit of brain training. For example, you might be in the bath and the tap is dripping. Just focus on that one thing – the dripping tap. Allow your focus to rest on that one thing. Notice the frequency of the drip, how it forms and how it falls into the water. Notice the ripples it creates. It is natural for your thoughts to wander, but with practice, you will be able to bring your thoughts back to the dripping tap rather than allowing yourself to jump into the future.
5. Get out of the way of your thoughts
When you are in the midst of an anxiety storm, it can feel like thoughts are coming out at you from all directions. It’s a bit like standing in the middle of Tottenham Court Road. The cars, bikes and buses are coming at you from all angles. Just like a barrage of thoughts in your mind. Visualise yourself stepping off the road and onto the safety of the pavement. The traffic continues on the road, but from the pavement you are able to look at it, rather than be in it. You are separating yourself from your thoughts and feelings. This perspective allows you to decide the best way to navigate crossing the road.
Don’t let the Christmas Grinch steal your present
I would love for you to be able to give yourself a break over Christmas. The Christmas party you’re at, or the family lunch, is still happening around you, whether your mind is present or not. So, take some time to practise these techniques so you don’t miss out on the joy that is surrounding you; the simple pleasure of being with your loved ones, connecting, and enjoying the spirit of Christmas.
Until next time, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and we’ll see you in the New Year. 😄