An estimated 40 million Americans are plagued by excessive anxiety and their fears can intensify at Christmastime.
Story: Theresa Campbell
A high school teacher, wife, and mother of three boys, Vanessa Vazquez, of Mascotte, finds the holidays extremely stressful with many social demands, changes in normal routine, and a financial burden. Add anxiety to the mix, and the stress gets cranked up tenfold.
“Anxiety is problematic because I have daily ‘what if’ thoughts and I doubt myself all the time,” she says. “I could very easily fill the entire months of November and December with a million wonderful activities, but that causes me stress, costs money, and will leave everyone disgruntled because I’m a mess.”
Of course, it’s a normal part of life to get nervous or feel anxious from time to time—when speaking in public, for instance—but when the anxiety is persistent and overwhelming, it can interfere with daily life.
Anxiety disorders are the most common and pervasive mental disorders in the United States, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website. The ADAA estimates 40 million American adults suffer from anxiety disorders, and only one-third receive treatment.
“Anxiety doesn’t mean you are broken or weak or sick. It is manageable,” Vanessa says. “I was able to manage it without medication for many years, but I also knew I needed to see a medical professional when all my normal ‘go-to’ remedies weren’t working anymore.”
She sought counseling for those “life is too hard” moments.
“If I had a weak heart, I’d see a cardiologist regularly. So, I see a therapist and my doctor for my weak brain,” Vanessa says. “One thing I have learned to do is know my limits. The holidays are a very busy time, and I have to be OK saying ‘no’ to things that seem like we have to or should do. I have a list of priorities and I make sure I keep those in mind when planning out our time.”
She also schedules “dates” with her husband and plans rest as well as alone time. She intends to do her Christmas shopping online.
“Those are big sanity savers. If I go, go, go, I will get mentally burned out and I will be useless to everyone,” she says. “One of my triggers for anxiety is exhaustion. When I am tired, I am much more at risk of having panic attacks, so I have to make sure I am sleeping well and letting my mind rest.”
One of the best ways people can help is to be an advocate for their friend or loved one who has anxiety.
“Don’t get mad when they can’t do something or can’t make a decision; help them through it by letting them talk out their fears and worries,” Vanessa says. “Do not discount what they are saying or tell them they are wrong or dumb; support them and help them through the struggle. Don’t take offense if they really cannot do something. Fear is a very loud motivator and it’s very rarely rational.”
She encourages others with anxiety to not hide their struggles.
“Find a trusted friend, therapist, or loved one and let them help you,” Vanessa says. “Anxiety, fear, and depression will get better, but you have to be honest with yourself and work hard to retrain your brain. My brain tells me not to do many things, and if I listened to my thoughts all the time, I would never leave the house. You have to be courageous in order to get better.”
Counseling can be therapeutic for anxiety-prone individuals, says Sandi Burchfield, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Family Life Counseling Center in Groveland.
“Now is their big Christmas meal and they start having triggers from the past when there was trauma, violence, anxiety—things that were bad experiences with their family before—and they may have tucked it away all year long,” she says, adding it’s important to develop “good coping skills.”
Lack of sleep, not eating well, getting too much sugar, and smoking too much nicotine can worsen anxiety, according to Karen Rogers, director of adult clinical services, and Jill Baird, senior vice president of clinical services at LifeStream, a behavioral health and social services organization in Leesburg.
They offered coping tips for the holidays:
Make efforts to be healthy.
Push yourself to exercise or walk. Try to control anxiety with what you do have control over. Exercise also is beneficial in releasing endorphins.
This is a proven remedy to help people overcome negative emotions. Write down two or three things that you feel grateful about each day.
Let go of expectations.
The perception of needing the perfect food or perfect presents can be too much. It’s OK to buy the grocery meal rather than prepare a feast.