‘Tis The Season To Be Anxious

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

Anna, age 12, sat in my office twisting her friendship bracelet while listing her fears. “My grandma shops alone and robbers could attack her. My mom lights candles and I’m afraid they’ll catch fire and burn us up. If we fly, terrorists might kill us.” A gifted, sensitive, well-read child, Anna suffers from anxiety. Symptoms of anxiety include fatigue, irritability, insomnia, heart palpitations, gastro-intestinal disturbances and excessive worry.

Psychologists say that anxious people tend to anticipate negative outcomes. They notice the look of disapproval on a busy clerk’s face or the tone of disappointment when a friend opens her gift. This heightened sensitivity can produce inner conflict that fuels toxic anxiety. “Did I get the wrong item? Should I offer to exchange the gift?” The anxious mind buzzes by over-thinking everything, anticipating the worst.

Holiday times require us to change our routines. The increased demands on our schedule to shop, cook, prepare for guests, or make travel arrangements can trigger anger and anxiety. Holidays stress our budgets, stretch our waistlines and strain our relationships. Couples argue about visits with in-laws. Singles battle loneliness. Children fight for attention.

Anxiety around the holidays feels especially bitter because of the expectation of joyous celebration, family harmony and luxurious gifts. Sandwiched between ads for delicious turkey feasts are news reports warning elderly shoppers to watch for pickpockets, purse snatchers and dishonest clerks. Instead of merely worrying about the home invasion burglar or the traditional mugger, we can now fret about:
OK, everyone….breathe in…..breathe out……imagine a quiet, peaceful place. Anxiety takes a toll on the body. Scientists measure this stress, or allostatic load, by looking at blood pressure, waist-to-hip ratio, blood cholesterol, glucose metabolism, cortisol and nor-epinephrine levels. If you don’t score within normal limits on these measures, it can predict brain deficits two years later. Seriously, two years later. Our physical and mental health depends on our ability to bring anxiety and stress within normal limits. To keep holiday stress manageable:
  • Banish expectations. When we expect courteous, prompt service, thoughtful gifts and well-mannered children we’re bound to feel disappointed.
  • Simplify. Do you really need a partridge in a pear tree?
  • Focus on values. Make decisions based on your priorities. Perhaps it’s more important to forgo the traditional thanksgiving to spend quality time with an ill relative.
  • Honor the temple of your soul. Your body houses the only life form you’ve got. It needs nutrients, sleep, exercise. Neglect it at your peril.
  • Practice mindfulness. Focus on the present moment, without evaluating that moment. Mindfulness lowers anxiety by pulling the mind away from worries about the future by focusing on immediate reality. I notice the sound my fingers make on the keyboard, my fidgety legs….

Holidays bring back unhappy memories for many people. Victims of holiday crimes often experience flashbacks and anxiety at the first sign of Santa. It helps to get lots of support from friends and family. A visit to a trusted psychotherapist can help soothe symptoms of anxiety. To avoid becoming a victim of holiday crime follow these tips:

  • Stay aware. Don’t talk or text on cell phone while shopping. Distracted shoppers make easy targets.
  • Shop with a cane for self-defense.
  • Watch the fatigue factor. Tired shoppers are accident prone, lose wallets, forget to put the credit card away, etc.
  • Shop with a buddy or only during daylight hours.
  • Don’t purchase from online pop-ups. Instead go directly to reputable websites to shop.
Despite the tsunami of worrisome stories on the news, we can still enjoy ourselves this holiday season. Never underestimate the power of fun and a good laugh.

Originally published  at Women in Crime Ink, on November 19, 2010.