Navigating the Holidays with Social Anxiety

It’s almost Christmas, or whatever midwinter holiday you might celebrate. It is the season of parties and socializing and food. In the next two weeks I have almost an entire week’s worth of days that include a family social event. I love my family, but it is a rare month that I can handle that much socializing with any group of people, much less with the extended family that I see once a year at most.

I know that I am not alone in finding the whirlwind of mandatory socialization stressful. I’m sure I could duck out if I needed to, but I do love my family and I certainly don’t want to insult or offend any of them. So what’s a girl to do when saying yes all the time will result in mild insanity but saying no means making people sad?

The holidays are essentially the perfect mix of things to set off anyone with a mental illness. Lots of people, lots of demands, high expectations, low tolerance for unhappiness, and lots of different personalities crammed together means tension. There’s lots of food, lots of alcohol, and often many small children heaped into a small place. There’s noise. There’s smells. There’s the probing questions about what you’re doing with your life (not much thanks).

I haven’t yet figured out how to do the holidays since realizing that I’m constantly stressed out and being around lots of people I don’t know that well stresses me out more. But I’ve found a few techniques that are helpful. Most of them center around boundaries.

If there are family members who know you have anxiety or an eating disorder or depression or whatever, have a little pre-holiday check in to see if you can make some plans. Is it possible for you to disappear to a bedroom for an hour or two to read if things are getting overwhelming? This is how I first read The Fault In Our Stars (I do not suggest this as “emotional downtime” reading material), and also how I got through Christmas day two years ago. I’d also suggest prepping an excuse if you need to make a dash. There’s nothing wrong with coming to a gathering for an hour or two, deciding you’ve hit your limit, and saying you have somewhere else to be/aren’t feeling well/have a really important hairwashing date.

It’s also ok to pick and choose which events you want to attend. There might be relatives who are only in town for the holidays, or friends you haven’t seen in a year, and you may want to prioritize those people. But if you have a limited supply of holiday cheer and your best friend invites you to a holiday party with people you’ve seen once a week for the last two months, you can put them off until next week. Sorry to everyone who got me at Thanksgiving. I’m saving my energy for the family that’s only in this state once a year.

One of the hardest parts of the holidays for me is that many of my family members are utterly unaware of the things that are important to me and end up saying incredibly hurtful things without realizing it (especially surrounding mental illness). Sometimes there isn’t any way to escape those comments, but often there will be another conversation going on, someone will be cooking, or you can escape to the bathroom if someone’s conversation is particularly triggering. Even if it’s just for a little bit it can help to move to a different setting. Last year I even went and spent time with children (of whom I am entirely terrified) to get away from some conversations that were too much for me.

Consider also planning some self pampering time. I’m aiming to schedule a massage, buy myself a kitten, get a new (and larger) bed, and also wear fuzzy pajamas as often as possible in the next couple of weeks. Your self care might look a little different, but if you know you have a stressful holiday party, make sure you’ve got a hot bath or a cup of hot cocoa waiting for you.

And most importantly for me, also consider cutting out a swathe of time to celebrate in the way you want to. For me, this will probably mean my D&D crew and my boyfriend, some handmade presents, and hot beverages. Low stress, low expectations, and the same kind of chilling that makes me happy all year round.

I also intend to spend as much of January as possible hermited away editing my book, so I have that to look forward to.

Leave your suggestions in comments, I’m always looking for more tricks.

One thought on “Navigating the Holidays with Social Anxiety

  1. Jason Ellis says:

    Good thing you had all the time for the preparation, me I am still in the midst of all my anxieties thinking of all those stressful socialization, sometimes meeting those people I am not comfortable with, although it is unavoidable, I am still expecting tiring holiday though!

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