• Dr. Paul D'Alton

How to keep anxiety at bay over Christmas

For many of us, Christmas is the most social and the most stressful time of the year.


Christmas tree with sparkly gold bauble (foreground) with stockings hanging over the fireplace (background).

In a time-poor society, the run-up to Christmas is stressful. We are drawn into lots of social gatherings: the ubiquitous office party, the neighbourhood get together, the book-club Christmas lunch, or the annual meet-up with the old school or college gang. The list goes on and on.


We're also right-bang in the middle of mid-winter, the shortest day of the year looms, our energy is depleted and we’re all in need of a break. But the pressure is on to make it the most wonderful time of year!


For many parents the festive season turns up the volume on the normal stress they experience all year round. I've a friend and colleague who has three children under 10. Each of these three children has at least four different WhatsApp groups that their mum, my colleague, has to keep on top of. The constant pinging of WhatsApp notifications - the swimming group, the girl guides group, the homework club and the list goes on. And then at this time of year they all want to have a Christmas drink, or worse, a Christmas dinner.


For many of these parents they are also the sandwiched generation: taking care of their children and taking care of their elderly parents. All of this ramps up the underlying stress many of us feel all year long, sometimes tipping us into a state of anxiety.


Anxiety is to be expected

We will all experience anxiety at some stage in our lives, that’s a given. This is especially so when doing exams or job interviews, having a medical procedures, or public speaking, for example. It is utterly normal - this kind of transitory anxiety is to be expected, and may actually improve our performance in some situations. It is estimated that about 18% of us will experience an anxiety disorder over the course of our lives.



Parties, shopping, prepping... The list goes on. Photo: Getty

But watch out - anxiety is a creeper. It creeps up on us and where it was once a discrete episode it can get a grip on us. Suddenly we realise it’s weeks since we felt relaxed or calm. Where once our anxiety was specific to a particular time or event, suddenly it has leaked into every aspect of life. It can become general (generalized anxiety disorder) where we feel anxious about a whole range of things, almost free-floating worry.


A high-alert system

Anxiety is a completely normal reaction to threat or danger. It is a natural reaction of the body and the mind to perceived danger: the 'fight or flight’ system is switched on, the body releases hormones such as adrenaline and a whole array of emotions follow suit.


This is the body and mind’s way of keeping us safe, of insuring our survival, it is our evolutionary inheritance, buried deep in the human brain.


The ‘fight or flight’ system is like an alarm reaction, clearing the decks for defensive or aggressive action to protect ourselves in life-threatening situations. We become hyper alert, heart beating faster, blood pressure up, gaze narrows, blood is redirected from digestion to larger muscles of legs and arms (this is what causes the ‘butterflies’ feeling many of us get when we’re nervous), so we can run away or fight back. We sweat - so we can’t be grabbed as easily by the animal or person after us! Shoulders go up to our ears to make us look bigger!


It’s the thought that counts

Few of us are in life-threatening situations but many of us find ourselves in high-alert with fight or flight switched on almost all the time. Why is this? The high-alert system gets turned on by our thinking too, so we only have to think something bad is going to happen and the high-alert system is switched on.


The 'fight or flight' response can be hard to come down from.


The nervous system gets so fired up, there’s a momentum that comes with anxiety that is really hard to interrupt. The withdrawal from the adrenaline, associated with high states of stress and anxiety, needs a kind of detox period. As unpleasant as it is, it can be really hard to come down from it.


Our thoughts really count, they can cascade a whole set of reactions that result in us being on high-alert all the time. When we peel back the layers of thinking behind anxiety it often comes down to something like this - ‘I won’t be able to cope’.


Social Anxiety and the festive season

There’s also what’s known as social anxiety: where people dread meeting new people and starting conversations. Speaking on the phone can terrify, eating together and parties are torture. Often when we peel back the layers of thinking behind social anxiety it comes down to something like this - ‘I am not enough’’.


For people with social anxiety, Christmas can be a nightmare. It really is the most traumatic time of year. Christmas parties combined with a big dollop of social anxiety are terrifying for people with social anxiety. I think it’s fair to say that most of us experience a degree of social anxiety.


It's estimated that roughly 10% of people suffer from social anxiety.


People with social phobia are often consumed by worry that they will do something that will embarrass them such as blushing, sweating or appearing incompetent and are often terrified of doing things when others are watching like eating or signing their names on documents.


It’s estimated that about 10% of the population suffers from social anxiety.


It is much more than shyness: it is an intense fear that doesn’t go away. It has a major impact on life, on jobs, relationships and normally begins in adolescence.


Here are some simple tips for managing anxiety during the festive season:


1. Know your Why - take time to identify why you’re really doing something; why am I having all my family for Christmas dinner, why am I rushing across town to go to the kids carol concert? The reasons that tend to emerge are generally about love and come from the grown-up version of myself. Knowing your "Why" will act as your North Star when the going gets tough.


2. Do your imperfect best - most of us are plagued by an inner perfectionist, sometimes terrorised by an inner perfectionist, the antidote is the 60:40 rule. Set your compass to getting it 60% right and learn to tolerate the ‘good enough’ outcome.


3. Learning to see thoughts as thoughts - learning to see thoughts as thoughts and not as an accurate reflection of reality. Don’t believe everything you think!


4. Choose one family member - pretending is exhausting, so open up to one family member or close friend about your anxiety. If you’re really anxious about a dinner together or a party ask them to work out a plan to help you.

Watch the booze - alcohol brings a very short temporary relief from anxiety but the rebound is terrible.


Originally published on RTE.ie 9/12/20.