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Wednesday 7 June 2023 Dublin: 8°C
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Opinion Feeling anxious this Christmas? There are steps you can take to cope
Therapist Bernie Hackett says Christmas can cause anxiety – she has a few helpful tips for coping.

CHRISTMAS IS SUPPOSED to be the ‘happiest time of the year’. But for many people, it’s a time of stress, grief and loss.

For others, it’s a time of high anxiety because of the social obligations that come with the festive season.  Social gatherings can be fraught for many reasons. Meeting people who we haven’t seen in a while means that we can engage in unhelpful comparisons, particularly when others seem to be doing particularly well in life.

While this is the constant refrain of social media, where people tend to portray only the best of themselves, it can also be difficult to contend with seeing people in real life who are seemingly in the best of form, achieving their dreams and living lives that you may feel that you are nowhere near in reach of.

Pressures of contact

Gatherings are all the more challenging now because many of us have spent so much time in isolation because of lockdown and social situations can appear to be even more overwhelming than usual.

Meeting up with family can be testing, especially for those who come from difficult or dysfunctional families. We tend to fall into the same roles we had when we were younger with family and this can be hard to deal with when relationships with certain family members are strained.

You may have a successful personal and professional life, but at home, you could be constantly belittled or berated by a parental figure, for example. Maybe it’s the case that someone in the family might be struggling with alcoholism or another addiction, and there’s tension or troubling behaviour in the household.

There are a few things you can do to help quell anxiety on a practical as well as on an emotional level which I will address below. If you plan a little in advance you can make sure that you have the best possible Christmas where you meet your own needs as well as possible, despite circumstances that may not be the Christmas Card representation of perfection.

1) Plan your entrance and exit in advance

Arrive early at a gathering. This allows you to make connections with people on a one-to-one basis rather than be overwhelmed by a bigger (and possibly merrier) crowd later on, particularly if you are meeting people in a bar.

Set a time limit to how long you want to spend in a particular place. Similarly, have an exit strategy in advance, ideally without being dependent on another person for getting home, so you have a clear structure of the event and this will give you a greater sense of control.

2) Don’t compare yourself to others

We are all totally unique and on completely different life journeys, but there is no quicker way to lose sight of your own personal value and uniqueness than comparing yourself to others.

Easier said than done, however, and it is difficult to contend with other people’s expectations of us (such as family) if we’re not living up to their standards.

It’s also difficult to deal with our own unmet expectations – such as not having a house, children, successful career for example. This is where self-compassion and kindness is key and the recognition of your own unique set of strengths.

3) Treat yourself as you would a good friend

You wouldn’t dream of berating your friend if they weren’t in their ideal position in life. Similarly, you should quell your critical inner voice and be nice to yourself, rather than feeding into expectations from others or those you exert upon yourself. Your situation will never improve if you continue to mentally beat yourself up.

4) Accept yourself (and your anxiety)

Part of being kind to yourself is accepting yourself – as well as your anxiety. It’s natural to have anxiety, particularly in chaotic environments which can range from a noisy bar to a family gathering which can have its fair share of tension and drama. Don’t struggle with your thoughts or feelings – let them be. Mindfulness can be a very effective technique to help with this.

5) Ask yourself ‘what do I need?’

Ask yourself what you need and what’s good for you. It’s OK to take time out. It’s OK to be by yourself and to mind your energy. If things become overwhelming at home – take any excuse to change the scenery – volunteer to take the dog out for a walk, or offer to help with chores.

If things are becoming too much at a social setting – go to the bathroom, wash your hands with hot water, go outside and get some air. A quick change of space can help you revive.

Bernie Hackett is an accredited member and Chair of the Irish Association for Counselling and psychotherapy (IACP).

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