Five tips for surviving the holidays

Dr. Jonathan Abramowitz, an expert in anxiety disorders and professor of psychiatry and psychology in the School of Medicine and College of Arts & Sciences, offers five tips for coping with holiday-related stress.

Finally! It’s the holiday season! We get a break from work, visit family, watch football games, eat great food.

And the other time-honored tradition: we get to stress out. And with unemployment across the country rising, many people might truly have a blue, blue Christmas.

“When someone becomes stressed they’re experiencing an age-old, very normal reaction to the perception of some sort of threat,” says Dr. Jonathan Abramowitz, an expert in anxiety disorders and professor of psychiatry and psychology in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine and College of Arts & Sciences.

“Your heart races, your chest gets tight, you start to sweat. There are catastrophic thoughts: ‘Oh, no! What’s going to happen?’ And then we act – it’s the fight-or-flight response,” Abramowitz says. “At its heart these are normal and adaptive behaviors.”

Stress, anxiety, depression and anger all are caused by certain patterns of thinking. “When we get angry, we’re telling ourselves that things must or should go a certain way, or other people must or should behave certain ways.

With the economy, we might be thinking that we have to buy gifts or go on vacation or travel to see family.

But, Abramowitz says, it’s the way we think about things that dictate our emotions.

“If we’re thinking, ‘I have to buy gifts for everyone. We signed up to take this big vacation, we have to travel.’ Those set us up to be let down.

So, what are we to do?

  • First, identify what the trigger is – a relative’s comment or the thought of a departed loved one – recognize how it makes you feel and slow down your thought process to keep your emotions from going 0 to 100 in 5 seconds flat.
  • Put expectations into perspective – lower them; the holidays do not have to be perfect.
  • Think of yourself first; we cannot control what others do or say but we can change the way we think about things.
  • Limit demands and ultimatums; replace “should,” “must” and “have to” with “I wish,” “maybe” and “my preference ...”
  • Remember the holidays are temporary; January is right around the corner.

“We don’t have to like the holidays, and they might not be stress free, but going into them thinking, ‘This is temporary, I can get through this,’ instead of “Oh, God, this is going to be awful,’ prepares you to get through them,” Abramowitz says.