In spite of how hallmark commercials portray the holidays, for many of us they are some of the most stressful and anxiety causing times of the year. The extra activities, the unreasonable expectations, the extended contact with family, and the anticipated gift giving can add additional pressure. For some people this is all enjoyable, but for many it can be very stressful. The image that is always portrayed of family around the holidays is one of joyous connection and love. But this isn’t always the case and it may make people feel isolated and alone in their struggle to deal with holiday stress. The good news is that you are not alone and that stress or anxiety around the holidays is an exceedingly common event and there are healthy ways to be able to deal with these feelings.
So I hear a lot about stress and anxiety, but is there a difference?
The short answer is yes, there is a difference and it’s important to know how stress and anxiety work in distinct ways. Stress is temporary, it is generally a response to an external trigger. For example, we have an upcoming holiday party to prepare for; we are hosting a dinner at our house; we are running late to catch our plane. These are all events that could trigger a stress response. The symptoms of stress may include rapid heartbeat, sweating, headaches, chronic pain, low energy, problems with sleep, and changes in appetite.
Our brains are designed to help us survive. In fact, this is the brain’s primary job. In some ways, stress serves as an alarm system for the body, alerting us that we are facing a dangerous situation and we need to take some quick action. We are hard wired to detect threatening situations. This threat detecting system is what has been key to our ability to survive over the many years our species has existed. Many years ago we used this system to help us detect and escape predators. Fortunately we no longer have to protect ourselves from tigers in the wild but the brain doesn’t distinguish between the threat of a tiger and the threat of an unhappy mother in law. Both situations are deemed by the brain to be extremely dangerous! The stress response in this case helps us take action to protect ourselves from this threat. We implement a variety of coping mechanisms to deal with our mother in law; some healthy, some not so healthy. This same alarm system is at play when we are feeling anxious. The difference is that the alarm system is not operating in the same way. We could say that it is being triggered even when there is not an imminent threat however the brain is detecting that a threat exists. This is one of the things that makes dealing with anxiety tricky. The threat detector is malfunctioning. Lets’ say that stressful event is a holiday party. The symptoms of stress tend to get better once the holiday party is over. The symptoms of anxiety don’t necessarily go away after the party is over, the person might begin to believe that what they need to do is avoid all holiday parties in the future to avoid the anxious feeling. A result they reduce their activities thinking it will reduce the anxiety and what happens is in the long term, the anxiety actually gets worse.
When trying to figure out what the best ways are to cope with holiday induced anxiety, it is important to first note that there are several types of anxiety: generalized anxiety; panic disorder; social anxiety; phobia; and obsessive compulsive disorder. Some of the symptoms of anxiety may include the same physical symptoms of stress listed above as well as feeling nervous, anxious or on edge; not being able to stop worrying; having trouble relaxing; being so restless that it is hard to sit still; becoming easily annoyed or irritable; feeling afraid something awful might happen. If you are interested in taking a short questionnaire on generalized anxiety click below. https://www.integration.samhsa.gov/clinical-practice/gad708.19.08cartwright.pdf
Most of the people who come to see me in my practice are struggling with some type of anxiety. That makes sense because anxiety is the most common mental health condition, about 18% of Americans are experiencing an anxiety disorder.
So what can I do about it?
There are several non-medication approaches to managing anxiety. First, I like to recommend exercise as a great way to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety. Aside from the physical benefits, exercise is changes your brain chemistry. It increases anti-anxiety neurochemicals in your brain including, serotonin, GABA and BDNF. Exercise also helps to control the amygdala; the part of our brain that is activated when our threat detector is on high alert and helps the pre-frontal cortex come on line. This is the part of the brain responsible for executive functioning.
If you would like to read more about all of the wonderful benefits that exercise may have on psychological health, feel free to click the link below!
In addition to exercise, I also like to recommend that clients suffering from anxiety start incorporating meditation into their daily schedule. Meditation is one of those things that seems really great in principle, right? But for many of us, meditation may be a completely foreign activity and we would have no idea where to start. So to make this approach more attainable I suggest using a guided meditation app that is geared towards beginners. The app that I use and most often suggest is called Ten Percent Happier and I have seen quite a bit of success and long term retention of meditation habits in my clients who have utilized it. Meditation provides a way to train your brain to be present. And when we are present we are more likely to let go of the tension in the body and find ease. Stress, tension and anxiety can be habitual. Sometimes our body has to learn how to break this habit loop and create a new habit loop of ease.
In addition to meditation, I strongly recommend that people experiencing anxiety take a step back and evaluate their caffeine consumption. You have probably heard before that you should limit your caffeine intake, but aside from preventing the jitters have you ever wondered why? Well if we look at caffeine’s chemical category, it is a stimulant. This means that it works to activate your nervous system into a “fight or flight” response (aka that threat detector system), and in anxiety this is exactly the physiological response that we hope to eliminate. In my practice, I have seen success in reducing anxiety symptoms of my clients when they dramatically reduce their caffeine intake, and the results have been truly astounding!
But perhaps most importantly, I have found that finding feelings of gratitude is very helpful for my clients dealing with anxiety. Gratitude is actually an antidote to anxiety and depression. It is one of the best medicines we can take to help ourselves feel better. And it has no cost and no side effects. If you think about it, it makes sense. We cultivate habits in our lives and whether we think we are doing this or not we are most definitely creating these behavioral patterns. The brain thrives on efficiency, so it seeks to produce habits. With anxiety the brain habitually believes that there is a threat (something awful might happen) and begins to put things in place to avoid this anxiety producing event.
Therefore, in order to shift ourselves out of the anxiety loop it becomes helpful for the brain to focus on what we have instead of what we don’t have. By doing this, it then helps the brain to create new neuro-pathways which aren’t anxiety causing. With the holiday season in full swing, it becomes even more important to ask yourself, “how do I incorporate gratitude into my life?” I like to think about gratitude as a practice. We have to form habits around gratitude. It’s the habit that will impact the anxiety.
What are the best ways to create a habit of gratitude?
One of my favorite things to recommend is the 5 Minute Journal, which is an app that is available on the app and android store. I personally use the app everyday and have found it to be beneficial to write down a morning and evening entry to put words to the things that I am thankful for in my life. It could be something as small as being thankful for the kindness of a stranger who gave you a compliment or that your significant other picked up the slack in an unexpected way. But regardless of how big of small, the process of recognizing all of the good things in our life will push feelings of gratitude to the forefront and feelings of anxiety out.
Anxiety disorders are the most common and the most treatable mental health conditions. However, unfortunately many people don’t seek treatment. While the strategies mentioned above are very successful at helping many of my clients overcome anxiety, sometimes it may be helpful to sit down and talk over your specific problems with a licensed professional. If you are ready to get some help for your anxiety please feel free to give me a call. Dr Lee LeGrice 817-307-8725.