Last Thanksgiving, my whole family gathered around a perfectly roasted turkey and a half dozen delicious, warm sides. All of the children and pets were calm and everyone as on their best behavior. The weather was chilly, but not cold. The day was cozy, peaceful, and perfect.
I’m joking, of course. I have never had a Thanksgiving that perfect, and it’s unlikely that many people have. The reality is that the holidays can be a difficult time, especially for individuals who experience anxiety and OCD. The season is rife with anxious triggers, including but not limited to: large groups of people, flying, harsh travel conditions, social interactions, and sharp objects. Another large stressor is the pressure we put on ourselves and our loved ones to make it all perfect. As such, I am happy to share a list of tips to help cope with stress and anxiety this holiday season.
1) Assess the way you are thinking about the upcoming holiday. Is your thinking in any way extreme (“flying is the worst”), black-and-white (“dinner will either be perfect or terrible”), or absolute (“the kids must be on their best behavior at all times”)? If your expectations map onto any of these patterns, it may be a good idea to re-set them to be more objective. Flying may not be the most enjoyable, but worse things can probably happen to a person. Dinner can probably be imperfect and still be good. And the kids will probably not be on their best behavior at all times – so instead, how can we manage that?
2) Once you’ve made your thinking more objective, plan for likely scenarios. For example, if the kids start to get fussy, what can keep them entertained and calm? If there will be a lot of traffic, how can we plan bathroom and food breaks into the trip?
3) Practice relaxation strategies to combat stress. A few simple exercises can be performed anywhere. One of these is slow breathing: try breathing in for four seconds, and out for four seconds. Repeat five times. Another strategy is progressive muscle relaxation: to do this, tense the muscles of your body, starting in your feet and working upward. Don’t forget your thighs and shoulders! Hold your muscles tight for a few seconds, then release all of the tension from your body at once.
4) If all else fails, embrace the exposure opportunity. As anxiety specialists, we know that avoidance maintains anxiety, whereas direct exposure helps us overcome it. Anxiety can cause us to overestimate both how bad a situation will be, and how likely it is to end in disaster. So, try talking to those relatives you don’t often see. They are probably not going to laugh at or exclude you. And try going to that crowded grocery store. Once there, it’s probably not as bad as you imagined. For more on exposure, take a look at an earlier blog on our website www.theocdandanxietycenter.com or here are some other helpful websites: www.iocdf.org, www.adaa.org
This Thanksgiving, things won’t be perfect. People will be late, or early. The rest of dinner will be waiting on the turkey to finish roasting. My young nephews will fuss, because they are out of their routine. Someone will get political, and another person will disagree. It won’t be perfect, but it will be time for all of us to spend together around the same table, which is probably the point.
If you struggle with anxiety or other strong emotions, feel free to reach out to The OCD & Anxiety Center at www.theocdandanxietycenter.com or 630-522-3124. From all of us, a very Happy Thanksgiving!