Coping Through Holiday Season Anxiety

Worried woman setting the table for a celebration. (ASIFE, Getty Images)
A UConn Health psychiatrist offers tips for getting through potentially stressful holiday activities, including family get-togethers and post-election debates. (ASIFE, Getty Images)

With the holiday season upon us, UConn Health’s Dr. Michael Kisicki, assistant professor of psychiatry, shares his best advice to help you and your family get through any potential stressful and anxiety-provoking holiday activities, including family get-togethers and post-election debates.

Q. What is it about the holiday season that leads to higher levels of anxiety and stress?

A. We all want that perfect Hollywood holiday, where everyone is happy and gets along with each other. We have so many high expectations about the holidays that just keep on rising until the big day comes. But inevitably we may be disappointed once the day actually arrives. Being with family can trigger hidden or past personality traits. For example, adult children can become childlike when they return to their childhood home, leaving their spouse wondering who the adolescent-like knucklehead dressed like a grown-up is sitting next to them. I know firsthand about holiday stress. For myself, I change from a middle-aged man to the devious spoiled younger brother who gets away with taunting his brother, expecting my mother to take care of everything. Lastly, holidays can bring stresses about finances to the surface. Not being able to afford the presents that you eagerly want to give to your loved ones can be devastating.

Q. How much do interfamily relationships add to holiday anxiety?

A. Love and commitment to family can bring together a motley grouping of socially mismatched individuals who have little in common aside from a last name. During the holidays we have to be around family members who wouldn’t necessarily be our first choice for dinner companions. There may be the judgmental mother-in-law, the disrespectful daughter-in-law, the uncle who drinks too much and insists on talking about politics. Also, old history can be dug up and old conflicts can be rejuvenated when extended family gets together. Humans love drama and gossip and will look for it if there is nothing else to talk about. As we get together and see people we have not seen for a while, the holidays can be a time when people compare themselves to siblings, cousins, and in-laws, thinking about how we measure up in terms of career, family, and happiness.

Q. How can we limit our holiday stress or anxiety, especially when interacting with a spouse or family member?

A. Despite all of these conflicts, struggles, and hang-ups, it’s still possible to have a good time and treasure our time with family. The most important thing is to focus on enjoying what you have, even the dry turkey or the hideous sweater. Our high expectations can hurt us, so try to minimize what you are expecting. A sense of humor, humility, and a grateful mindset can deliver you safely through the holidays into January. It’s easy to focus on material things and on yourself during the holidays, but try to match every selfish thought with two thoughts about others. To manage stress, also make sure you are taking care of yourself. During the holidays, besides being stressed, we tend to eat more and drink more. Minimizing your alcohol intake and getting some exercise will be good for stress relief. Get an early start on that New Year’s resolution of walking or going to the gym more. Try learning to meditate. This is a great way to manage stress, and there are great free ways to learn with free online videos or apps. There is something about making a commitment to putting time aside to take care of yourself that can do wonders for your spirit.

Q. How do you advise parents to prevent translating their own anxiety to their children?

A. For those families that really have a hard time communicating or have nothing in common, try a destination holiday (like a camping or ski trip). If getting away is not possible, try home activities (baking a cake together or playing a board game), or small outings nearby (miniature golf or a movie). Group activities give the family something benign to talk about, create a fun backdrop, and make for good memories. It’s a great time of year to volunteer; try taking the whole family to work at a soup kitchen or shelter. This can be a particularly good idea if you have to be alone or away from family this time of year.

Q. After this stressful election season what is the best way to talk with family members who may have a different political view?

A. There is definitely going to be a lot of arguing over the egg nog about this past election. In my own practice, I have seen how this election – more than I have ever seen before – has drawn blue and red battle lines down the middle of the dinner table. For the inevitable political or religious arguments, focus on the subject rather than the person. As absurd as you may believe someone’s beliefs to be, they must have a personal reason for having them. Try to find out what that is, figure out where they are coming from rather than trying to show you are right. No one is keeping score, and winning an argument over a holiday meal is ultimately a loss for the family. You are more likely to get the silent treatment from your wife on the car ride home than respect for your genius debate skills.

Q. What should people do if their anxiety lingers after the holidays – or their child’s anxiety does?

Besides the stress of the holidays, some people can be very sensitive to the shorter days and colder weather of winter. I see patients who routinely have depressive episodes or worsening of anxiety this time of year. If you find that you or a loved one have become persistently anxious without reason, or are feeling uncharacteristically sad or irritable, you may need professional help. There are effective therapies to help with anxiety and depression. There is no shame in getting help so that you can be more resilient for your family.

Parents seeking assessment for children and teens can contact Kisicki’s West Hartford clinic at 860-523-3745. The practice also assesses and treats parents of the children.