“When someone becomes stressed, they’re experiencing an age-old, very normal reaction to the perception of some sort of threat,” explained Dr. Jonathan Abramowitz, an expert in anxiety disorders and professor of psychiatry and psychology in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine and College of Arts and Sciences.
“Your heart races, your chest gets tight, you start to sweat. There are catastrophic thoughts … And then we act – it’s the fight-or-flight response,” Abramowitz said. “At its heart, these are normal and adaptive behaviors.”
Stress, anxiety, depression and anger all are caused by certain patterns of thinking, he continued. “When we get angry, we’re telling ourselves that things must or should go a certain way, or other people must or should behave certain ways,” he said.
Furthermore, the current economic climate can result in additional pressure to find a way to buy gifts or travel to see family despite tighter purse strings. “If we’re thinking, ‘I have to buy gifts for everyone. We signed up to take this big vacation, we have to travel.’ Those set us up to be let down,” Abramowitz explained.
Abramowitz offered the following tips to deal with holiday stress:
• First, identify what the trigger is, whether it’s a relative’s comment or the thought of a departed loved one, and recognize how it makes you feel. Slow down your thought process to keep your emotions from going 0 to 100 in 5 seconds flat.
• Put expectations into perspective. Lower your expectations and realize that the holidays do not have to be perfect.
• Think of yourself first. We cannot control what others do or say, but we can change the way we think about things.
• Limit demands and ultimatums. Replace “should,” “must” and “have to” with “I wish,” “maybe” and “my preference ...”
• Remember, the holidays are temporary. January is right around the corner.
“We don’t have to like the holidays, and they might not be stress-free, but going into them thinking, ‘This is temporary, I can get through this,’ instead of “Oh, God, this is going to be awful,’ prepares you to get through them,” Abramowitz said.