Managing Anxiety at Holiday Parties


Holidays are supposed to be happy times, opportunities for friends and family to gather and celebrate the season with love and good wishes.

“Supposed to be”—but maybe for you, that idea of the December holiday time isn’t a match for how you’re feeling or what’s happening in your life. If that’s the case, the first thing you need to know is that you’re not alone in having a mismatch between what should be and what is. And that can lead to a lot of stress and anxiety.

What should you do to get through it all?

Start by letting go of your memories of how the holidays used to be, and instead focus on the reality of how it is now. Then, look for ways to make it work for you. For example, if those traditions or rituals aren’t part of your life now, then create new ones that enable you to celebrate the season.

Then, rather than hiding away until the holiday season is over, try these suggestions to make it easier for you to get through the next few weeks.

Find ways to de-stress.

You’re supposed to show up at Aunt Mary’s house for the annual holiday get-together but just the thought of facing all those people—or answering all their questions—is sending you into an emotional tailspin. And the more you think about it, the worse you feel.

How to deal with the stress you’re feeling? Try these methods to calm your body and your mind.

Use a simple deep-breathing technique. Inhale through your nose for a count of 4 and exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. As you do that, notice where you feel the most tension—maybe in your neck, your shoulders, or your back. Each time you take a breath, focus on those tight areas and try to relax the muscles.

Other suggestions are to meditate (check out this YouTube video) or exercise, since physical activity can help relieve stress. Shoot some hoops, go for a run, or hit the bowling alley, and by the time you’ve finished, you’ll be less wound up.

Learn how to handle difficult people.

Every group has them: those people who think it’s their duty to criticize others or to ask embarrassing questions. And while it can be tempting to verbally let loose or tell them that they don’t have a right to pry into your personal life, it rarely works out well.

If this kind of negative or hurtful conversation is what usually happens at your gatherings, prepare ahead of time. Know what topics to avoid (politics, lifestyle choices, or religion, for example) and stick to safer subjects like the weather or the food. If the other person won’t let it go, remove yourself from the conversation instead of letting it escalate.

The point is that you can’t change their behavior or their thinking. All you can do is change how you respond to them.

Finally, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness, understand that you don’t have to let yourself be abused. No one has the right to insult or denigrate you, call you names or verbally attack you. Draw the line ahead of time, and if their behavior crosses it, then take yourself out of the game by moving away from them. That’s not being a wimp. It’s being self-protective.

Acknowledge and respect your emotions.

Sometimes it isn’t difficult people that make the holiday challenging, but rather the absence of people. It seems like everyone you talk to has somewhere to go or people to be with during December, while you are all alone. This is even harder to deal with if you have lost someone close to you or if there are friends or family members who, for whatever reason, are no longer part of your life.

What can you do to get through the season?

Honor your own feelings. Don’t try to pretend to be cheerful if you’re feeling alone or sad. Instead, look for ways to fill the void by connecting with those people who are still part of your life. Even video chats with friends or family members can help you feel connected and less lonely. Or find other people who are feeling equally left out and join together to support each other, suggests McLean Hospital.

Finally, if you have nowhere to go or no one to be with during the holidays, think about volunteering your time, suggests Clay Center at Massachusetts General. Many community, religious, and social organizations need people willing to give an hour or two to support the cause. Every little bit helps, and when you do something for someone else, you end up feeling part of something bigger, which can make you feel better.

Most importantly, treat yourself with compassion. The emotions and situations you are dealing with are real, and it can be difficult to handle them on your own. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to reach out to others for help: a support group, a therapist, a faith community, or friends who understand. That’s the best gift you can give yourself.