The holiday season is a time of higher anxiety, whether that is due to financial reasons, family tensions or how we think others may perceive us during this time. During the holidays, we may get hooked on the expectations we have of ourselves, others and their expectations of us.

“Anxiety, by definition, is living inside those unknowns, imagined futures or imagined perspectives that other people have,” says Timothy Moore, PhD, LP, BCBA-D, a licensed psychologist with University of MInnesota Physicians (M Physicians) and an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Dr. Moore says there are many reasons why people may experience higher anxiety during this time, and he offers insight on what to do about it.

Why could my anxiety be heightened during the holidays?

Many different factors may cause feelings of anxiety during the holidays, with expectations being a key driver. Financial expectations, either from family or the ones we set for ourselves, can be uncomfortable. We may feel pressure to buy the best gift because we want to be the best parent or family member, which can be stressful. “These pressures that are on them directly, or that they imagine to be, may pull a person to spend more money than they have budgeted, and that in itself creates some stress,” says Dr. Moore.

How we appear or show up to holiday events, in addition to interacting with others who will be there, can also lead to anxiety. Many people tend to have some sort of misunderstanding or imagined understanding of the expectations others may have of them. During the holiday season, some people may feel pressure from family or friends to act a certain way, especially if they have spent some time apart.

What can you do about it?

This anxiety can present both physically and emotionally. It is important to be able to recognize what exactly you are experiencing.

“Anxiety can manifest physically in so many different ways. It might start with a headache and they may experience pains in their stomach, nausea and muscle tension. If you recognize this, you can connect back to how you are feeling about a certain situation,” says Dr. Moore. “Ask yourself, what’s connected to this? Is there something I am worried about that’s connected to this physical feeling?”

Recognizing these feelings and also reflecting on them is important, Dr. Moore explains. He suggests reflecting on:

  • Your values
  • How you want to show up
  • Your relationships with the people you are spending this time with

We fabricate many of these thoughts ourselves, so we have to recognize that these thoughts or narratives might not be true, even though they can be convincing.

Dr. Moore also suggests bringing yourself back to the present. “Anxiety by definition pulls you out of the present moment and into the unknowns about the future, relationships and things you may have invented or other people invented for you,” he says.

We don’t have a choice when these thoughts come to mind, but we have the choice about how we bring ourselves into these situations. By paying attention to that, Dr. Moore says that we can distinguish between what we can and can’t control.

For clinicians who might not typically treat anxiety, Dr. Moore suggests developing a shared curiosity with the patient, inviting them to be curious about where exactly this anxiety is coming from. This allows patients and their caregivers to address the anxiety head on, starting with the root cause.

M Physicians offers many providers with specialties in anxiety and other mental health disorders. If you feel this anxiety is becoming uncontrollable and overwhelming, consider reaching out to an M Physicians clinician to help.