Are you approaching winter celebrations and the holiday season with apprehension? Regardless of religion or traditions, the approaching winter brings with it the close to a truly unique and challenging year.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, this year’s celebrations and customs will be different and difficult for many. Typically, we head into the season looking forward to social gatherings with friends, family, neighbours and co-workers. We share meals and take part in a host of other traditions. This season, we cannot celebrate in our traditional ways and without our favourite practices. However, it’s important not to cancel all events, remember you may celebrate with close family or friends with strict adherence to established guidelines set by government and health authorities. You may also connect virtually with those outside your immediate circle. The guidelines may cause additional stress to an already hectic time of year; however, the precautions in place are there for our protection and to limit the risk of exposure and spread of the virus. Many would suggest this time of year is supposed to make us feel good, filling us with joy and a renewed sense of togetherness. So, why is it that so many of us are finding that we no longer share this sentiment?
For some, it may not be the most wonderful time of the year.
Unfortunately for some, there are negative repercussions to the inescapability of the season. COVID-19 may have brought extreme hardship and adversity to families from all walks of life, regardless of culture or religion. Others may have sensitive memories or traumatic events from past years tied to the holiday season. Various triggers may induce strong reactions, including anxiety and/or depression, and in some instances even phobias that can affect disposition and behaviours significantly, leading or contributing to adverse health outcomes.
Beyond physical reactions, every year, the cavalcade of consumer goods and often self-imposed expectations to give the perfect gift place undue mental strain and fatigue on the most resilient of us. The commercial blitz combined with the visual stimuli serves as a constant reminder of the coming holidays. The pandemic has brought many unexpected twists and turns. Many of us may be looking back on the year feeling that the pandemic has taken the opportunity for celebration away.
So, what can we do about this?
It’s time for us to listen to our instincts and acknowledge what our minds and bodies tell us. We can minimize some of the increased anxiety and reduce some of the stress that we feel building by recognizing the symptoms we are experiencing, acknowledging our reactions to them, and developing plans to put safeguards and solutions in place that allow us to be better prepared with known expectations for a season unlike those previously celebrated.
Recognizing the symptoms of anxiety
Generally, anxiety is a reasonable and temporary reaction to stressful situations or environments. What makes things more complicated is when someone has an anxiety disorder. In this case, the anticipation of what could happen at a holiday-related event may bring on more debilitating symptoms like shallow breathing, heart palpitations, and irritability as the body responds with intense reactions that might seem disproportionately strong. These extreme anxiety responses have often been brought on by interpersonal conflict. Conditioned over time, these responses have trained the brain to overestimate the level of risk and/or danger that exists within a given situation.
Someone with an anxiety disorder might experience the sudden onset of headaches, dizziness or even high blood pressure. While the scenario of relatives arguing about something might be somewhat uncomfortable for everyone, for a person with an anxiety disorder, this can have a very physical reaction that is instinctive and can be devastating. It’s “fight or flight” in action. They may immediately feel like they need to withdraw, and depending on the degree of uneasiness and tension that has been introduced, they may not be able to rejoin the gathering and may feel compelled to leave the immediate environment.
Clues your body uses to show that you are feeling stressed
While some people insist they are motivated when they are feeling stressed, a stress reaction can set off instinctive physical, behavioural and psychological changes in our bodies that, over time, can have a significant effect on our long-term health. Though you might not think they are related, stress reactions can cause you to lose sleep, create upper respiratory or digestive problems, be related to the development of hypertension, and may be associated with coronary heart disease over the longer term. Have you noticed nervous habits like nail biting increase when you’re stressed? If you’re a smoker, have you observed that you might be consuming more cigarettes when stress runs high? Even seemingly innocent things like a lack of patience, reduced activity levels, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, and uncharacteristic interpersonal conflicts are warning signs that your body is reacting to an increased amount of stress. The challenge in recognizing our reactions is that we think these are just normal responses. It’s easy to rationalize that we’ve only had a bad day or are in a bad mood.
Seven techniques you can use to help diminish your anxiety or alleviate stress
1. Express yourself
Although it goes against what your body may be telling you, it’s essential to stay connected with supportive, caring, and sympathetic people. Speaking with trusted family members, friends, or colleagues who will listen to how you feel and help you express yourself is one way to reduce anxiety and stress.
2. Look on the bright side
Reframing your perspective allows someone to look at difficult situations with a goal in mind to overcome any negative thinking. Shifting problems into opportunities can be beneficial to feel more in control.
3. Take a moment just to breathe
Your brain can switch from a stressed state to a relaxed and calm demeanour when you concentrate on the simple act of inhaling and exhaling. Over time, you can develop skilled relaxation that extends to release muscle tension and relieve feelings of anxiousness. Close your eyes, clear your mind and notice nothing but the rhythm of your breath. You could even use a positive message to stay focused: Life is beautiful. This is the very essence of meditation, and with practice, you can see significant improvements in concentration and your overall feelings of well-being.
4. Get enough sleep
Getting a restful night’s sleep helps you cope better with the stresses you experienced during the day and enables you to prepare for tomorrow. Studies have repeatedly shown that the optimal amount of sleep ranges between seven and eight hours each night. After you feel more rested, you may even feel energized enough to wake up early to plan your day.
Even 20 minutes a day can help. When you exercise, your body produces endorphins that combat stress and fatigue. Where possible, seek activity in isolation adhering to physical distancing guidelines. Move your arms and legs, stretch, get your blood circulating. Listen to music while you work out to help put you in a positive mood. Findings suggest that between 20 and 40 minutes of aerobic activity can reduce stress levels for several hours.
6. Plan ahead and prioritize
One of the best things to stay calm and focused in stressful situations is to anticipate what could happen and visualize what you would do and what the priorities would be. Make a list of things you need to remember or complete, identify goals and remember, be kind to yourself by recognizing your accomplishments and progress.
7. Watch what you eat, drink and indulge in
Be aware of the effects that your dietary choices can have on anxiety and stress. Caffeine has been shown to increase cortisol levels, leading to anxiety. Nicotine is a powerful stimulant that produces epinephrine (adrenaline) when inhaled. Adrenaline can spike glucose levels, which increases blood pressure, heart rate and respiration, creating conditions for an anxiety attack. Alcohol is both a stimulant and a depressant that causes mood, and emotional changes that can induce an anxious response, trigger a depressive state and, in some instances, may result in fatigue. Often, the holidays mean an abundance of sweets and treats with high sugar and fat levels. Pay attention to your body’s need for healthy food during this busy time of year.
What else can you do to feel well throughout the season of winter celebrations?
Have the courage to be honest with your friends and family about how they can be involved and help you with goals to reduce stress and anxiety. Clarify expectations that they may have of you and reframe them. It may mean that you need to take a step back from traditions you don’t enjoy. That’s okay. Releasing expectations from past years that have created anxious or stressful responses can be liberating. This also allows you to focus on the current year: It’s okay if priorities look different than those of past holidays or years.
Take time to reflect on the deeper meaning of these gatherings and events for you, your family, and your social circle. This year has been unique and memorable. Reflect on the events that brought you comfort and understanding, and look to your strength and resiliency through the challenges you have faced.
Finally, don’t try and control the uncontrollable, especially other people’s behaviour. Focus on the things you can control: like the way you choose to react to a perceived problem. If you need to, step back from stressful situations to move away from the emotional reaction that could create an anxious response.
Remind yourself of what’s important. Will it matter in a month or in a year’s time? Some people use the five-by-five rule to assess a situation: if it’s not going to matter in five years, don’t’ spend more than five minutes being upset by it.
In the end, it’s about the series of small steps you can take to keep your brain calm at a particularly stressful time of year. Worrying is a habit you can learn to manage!