Ask an expert: 'Help! My Christmas anxiety is out of control'
Adult and specialist adolescent psychotherapist Belinda Kelly answers your queries
Q I have had a really stressful time at work and can’t wait for this year to end. I need a proper holiday to switch off. But now that Christmas is coming, I am getting really anxious.
I wake up during the night worrying about stupid things like where I’ll get the turkey from or how I will afford all the presents for my very large family. I am spending ridiculous amounts of time online obsessing over Christmas recipes and I feel overwhelmed at the thought of cooking for so many people.
I am really an introvert and this time of year makes me panic. I am not a big drinker and I end up feeling drained by it all the social occasions. Have you any advice how to make it easier?
A: You have been through a difficult time at work where your body was under a lot of stress. It sounds like all of that energy hasn’t been integrated or processed. You haven’t found a space to release those negative work experiences. They are still bubbling away inside you and now you have to launch into a demanding festive period.
If you are waking up during the night, then your mind has become overactive and is unable to rest. Could you take a day off work before the Christmas starts in earnest?
Check out sanctuary.ie for drop in meditations or retreats. Or go online to find retreat centres in Ireland. You could find a therapist you can talk to where you can share what’s on your mind and find some perspective.
The good news is that you are not alone. Many of us get overwhelmed, anxious or low during the Christmas break. Below are some tips to help you take control over your mental health.
By making a conscious choice to self-care this season, you can create your own personal boundaries that will help you start the new year feeling more empowered and refreshed.
Delegate and take support
If you are cooking a Christmas dinner for a large group of people, you need to delegate tasks to other guests or family members. Assign someone to bring a cooked ham or a vegetarian dish. Someone else can bring the starter and someone else can bring the desert or cheese. It is not fair to expect the host to prepare everything on the day. It’s also more enjoyable for guests to feel that they are involved in helping with the meal.
If you are part of a big family, then the shopping list for presents can become costly and overwhelming. Kris Kindle is wonderful for taking the pressure off everyone by choosing one family member to buy for. If there are a lot of children involved, then have a conversation about Kris Kindle for them as well. This will take the financial pressure off people as well as not having to face the Christmas shops.
Respect your boundaries
There is no ‘right’ way to do Christmas. For some it’s being surrounded by lots of friends and/or family. For others it’s being alone with a good book in front of a fire or hiking up a mountain surrounded by nature.
There is a lot of pressure to be social during this time. For people who find these interactions demanding, this can be a stressful period. Remember if you are feeling exhausted or depleted, it is OK to say no. But in order to look after yourself, you will have to bear the disapproval of others. You can decline an invitation or make a decision to limit your time so that you can come home and restore your balance.
Be aware of your alcohol intake
Christmas is a time of excess. In Ireland, we associate drinking alcohol with having a good time. In social situations we can become self-conscious and rely on alcohol to reduce our anxiety.
But alcohol is a depressant, which means that drinking it to excess will have a negative effect on your nervous system. It can exacerbate mental health issues over time. This is because alcohol depletes chemicals in the brain that naturally reduce anxiety. So we can end up feeling more stressed or depressed. Then we feel we need more alcohol to cope with these feelings of anxiety.
At social events, try experimenting with some of the many alcohol-free beers that are now available. They taste just like normal beers. If you’re at a party, bring your own and keep them somewhere you can access.
Drink alcohol slowly. It takes the body an hour to break down one unit of alcohol. So try not to knock back your drink. Alternate it with a glass of water to give your body time to metabolise the alcohol. Do keep in mind that some medications, including antidepressants, have harmful interactions with alcohol.
Connect with yourself
The end of year is a perfect time to go inwards and reflect on how you are in a deeper way. You could try writing in a journal at the beginning or end of each day. This is a great way to empty your mind of all those ‘to do’ lists that interfere with restful sleep.
Or try a meditation app as soon as you wake up for 15 minutes each morning. If you’re not keen on meditation, check out the videos on sighleyoga.ie for some gentle stretches when you wake up each morning. These will give you energy and focus for your day.
Or you can try drawing, lying in the bath, playing with children, walking, exercise, dancing or singing.
Remember that you are only human. You are imperfect and it’s OK to feel tired, sad or overwhelmed.
When you can learn to be kind to yourself then you can extend this same compassion onto others.