McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Navigating the holiday season when living with anxiety

Published: December 18, 2017
Stephanie Waechter
Stephanie Waechter - assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences

The holiday season is filled with events that some people may find stressful. 

Social gatherings, travel arrangements, meal preparation and gift giving are just a few aspects of the busy time of year that can put extra pressure on mental health.

People living with an anxiety disorder can find these extra activities more taxing, says Stephanie Waechter, an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences of McMaster University's Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine.

"Some people may experience an increase in anxiety, including both mental and physical symptoms, in the winter and especially around the holidays," says Waechter, who is also a psychologist at the Anxiety Treatment and Research Clinic at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton. 

'Anxiety disorder' is an umbrella term that covers different types of anxiety. Among the signs of anxiety are irrational and excessive fear, tense feelings and difficulty managing daily tasks and/or stress related to those tasks.

Research shows that up to one in four people may experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue in women and second most common in men, second to substance use disorders.

Waechter says the departure from regular day-to-day life activities can be challenging for people with anxiety.

"There are a lot of changes in routine over the holidays," she says. "People might be travelling, they might be eating differently, they might be sleeping less and that can contribute to symptoms of anxiety.

"There are also a lot of demands on both our time and finances at this time of year, which also contributes."

Waechter suggests that some holiday activities – social gatherings, in particular – are more taxing for people with anxiety.

"I work with a lot of people who have social anxiety and worry about being judged or not knowing what to say in social situations," she says. "The holidays can make those feelings worse because there are a lot of gatherings, whether it is a family Christmas dinner or a holiday work party."

The need for perfection is also heightened in those living with anxiety.

"There are those who worry throughout the year about lots of different things, including things like whether they are meeting their goals at work or if their house is clean enough," she says. "At this time of year, the media is showing us a lot of picture-perfect depictions of the holidays that are out of reach for most of us. This can lead to additional anxiety that may make it hard to enjoy themselves."

Waechter says there are some things people with anxiety can do to take care of themselves over the holidays.

"Getting lots of sleep and eating right is important," says Waechter. "If people have usual coping mechanisms that are working, like exercise or meditation or hobbies, it is important to keep those up over the holiday season.

"It can also be helpful for people to relax their standards, say no to something or ask for help if they've taken on too much. That's good advice for everyone during this time of year."

Waechter notes that people who do not have an anxiety disorder may also find the holiday season overwhelming. She notes that paying attention to sleep and diet, lowering personal expectations and trying to stick to a regular routine as much as possible, can be helpful.

She also urged people who notice symptoms of anxiety that impact day-to-day activities or continue beyond the holiday season to speak to their family doctor. 

"A family physician can help monitor the situation and make recommendations about things to try or places to go for help," she says.


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