Anxiety levels tend to shoot up as the year draws to a close. Sometimes the thought of being with our families—and talking about a year which may not have been so good for us—makes us uncomfortable. Or maybe we don’t know how to wind down. My colleague Dr. Charles Hindler observes that high-functioning people with anxiety cope by over-working during the week, and then medicating themselves with substances over the weekend.
The holiday season creates a void, where they are exposed to their frenetic minds and bodies. Whatever the reason, please know that just because you’ve been plagued by anxiety for a long time, that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to never have a fun holiday season. Here are the techniques that I, a a sufferer of anxiety and a psychiatrist myself, use to make it through.
1. Know the nature of your thoughts.
One of the first exercises I do with my clients is a three-minute breathing space meditation. If you’re like most of my clients and you’ve never heard of meditation, or feel ashamed because meditation doesn’t give you that state of bliss everyone talks about, I hear you.
This exercise illuminates the nature of our thoughts. Just as they come from nowhere, they disappear into nowhere. Most of us are never taught this, so we believe that our thoughts are preordained or that they're signs we need to do something about. To be human is to have thoughts; yet we beat ourselves up for being human!
So, remind yourself that a thought is just a thought. Let your mind process it, then gently bring your attention back to your breath. In the words of Zen master Shunryu Sukuzi, “Allow your thoughts to come and go. Just don’t serve them tea."
2. Soothe your body.
Did you know that smell is one of the most powerful grounding tools? When we are feeling residual pain or we are dissociated from the present, a strong smell can bring us back.
I love Dottera’s PEACE blend for this. My friends and spiritual teachers Tay and Val explain that it contains vetiver— the oil of tranquility-- which settles the nervous system and calms the mind. As it is literally expelled from the roots of the plant, it grounds us in the present moment. Simply apply over the heart center, gut area (our power centers) and inner wrists (especially when we tend to clench our fists) to release the need to control things we cannot—the dinner conversations, whether there’ll be enough snow to make a snowman, or if the kids will behave.
What to do when your thoughts take over:
Here’s a powerful meditation you can do, that only requires three breaths. Tay and Val say that when we breathe in through the soles of our feet, we create a sense of grounding with earth energy. When we draw breath in through the crowns of our head, we tune into the sky’s expansive energy. In essence, this is the perfect embodiment of “as above, so below." When we connect both streams of energy, we nourish our heart center, which pumps nutrients and detoxifies us.
- Take a deep breath, drawing air in from the soles of your feet, channeling support from the earth. As you exhale, use your breath to create a golden bubble of energy around you.
- Inhale deeply, drawing in air and light through the crown of your head from the sky. Exhale out a golden bubble of light energy around you.
- Take a third deep breath in, drawing in love and air from around you, via your heart. Exhale through your heart, filling the space around you with love and protection.
Schedule a date to worry:I remember sitting in a group session where a coach hounded a trembling girl to "just erase [your] worries" repeatedly. If only it was that easy. We often worry because we believe it is useful and protects us. Then it becomes this throbbing muscle that we cannot control; so it’s difficult to let go. If you’ve been worrying non-stop for the last ten years, it’s practically your shadow. Schedule a sacred time everyday where you can tend to your worries, rather than pretend that they don’t exist.
Start by scheduling one hour in the morning and one in the evening to worry. If you worry for 10 hours a day, that’s 80 percent less. During all other times when a worry pops in, simply acknowledge its presence and let it go, knowing that you’ll have space for it later. With time, you’ll find you only need a few minutes a day to worry.
Another way to release the burden of your most painful worries throughout the day is the idea of a God Box, if you’re spiritual. Danica, a lightworker, suggests that we simply write our biggest worries down on paper and put them into the box, knowing that a higher power is watching over them.
3. Nourish your body.
We need the most self-love when we’re anxious— rather than our autopilot response of beating ourselves up. My friend Benita Scott (Experimental Psychologist and EFT practitioner)
Another thing you can do to up the self-love during difficult times is to set an intention. Often, we may do things that seem right— exercise, juicing, supplements—but they are often motivated by fear. FOMO doesn’t simply apply to a fear of missing out on parties and the latest shiny toys. It’s also relevant to a fear of cancer, dying and growing fat. So, in every good thing you do, set the intention to do it out of love, rather than fear.
4. Stop medicating yourself.
We don’t just rationalize our feelings away, we also shove them down with substances or compulsive habits. But running away is running away, no matter what it looks like.
My friend Caitlin Padgett, a lifestyle coach who supports successful women in cutting down on alcohol use, says that it’s easy to understand why alcohol is such a go-to when we feel anxious. Because it is a sedative and a depressant, sometimes all we need are a few sips to feel far away from our anxieties. I’s little wonder that we confuse it for medication.
Yet, the high sugar content in alcohol can exacerbate the symptoms of anxiety, where we feel hyperaware of every sensation in our bodies or experience jitters. Alcohol therefore becomes a double-edged sword that amplifies anxiety. Caitlin recommends that we treat ourselves to delicious, nourishing mocktails instead.
5. Improve your sleep.
My colleague Dr. Nikos Gkampranis says, since sleeping accounts for about a third of our lives, it's crucial to get it right. And yet, when we’re anxious, our sleep suffers. I asked my friend, sleep expert Christine Hansen,
Your current levels of anxiety didn’t descend upon you overnight—like muscles, they took time to develop. But the one thing I want to tell you is this: It’s not your fault that you’re feeling anxious.
We’re not given a manual to life, and when common challenges befall us, the feelings of isolation and shame feed our muscles of anxiety. What you need to know instead is that by building your anxiety toolkit, you build new muscles of self-love and compassion. These may sound soft and weak, but really, they are give you the courage to live your life—not simply by gritting your teeth and getting on with it, but rather by enjoying yourself and feeling good about yourself for a change.
I know the holidays can be tough, and if you can successfully build your anti-anxiety muscles up, the rest of your life will seem much easier to navigate.