Christmas is sort of a big deal in my house. I start curating my "Ultimate Christmas Playlist" around mid-October; then, about a week before Thanksgiving, I inevitably lose all self-control and start pulling garland, wreaths, and candles out of the Christmas boxes. In early December I start to stock up on festive Christmas cookies and candies to keep on hand throughout the month.
But for all this eagerness you see on the outside, there’s a volcano of turmoil bubbling inside me. I love Christmas, I really do—but in the years since my anxiety diagnosis, I’ve struggled to balance that sincere excitement with my equally sincere dread for the entire holiday season.
Someone who has never experienced a mental health issue might have a hard time understanding what there is to possibly dread about a season characterized by hot chocolate, gift giving, and candy canes. But for those of us with anxiety or other mental health issues, that stretch from Halloween through New Year’s Eve can look like a land mine full of potential conflicts.
Here’s just a tiny glimpse of my mental state throughout the holidays:
What if I’m the only one wearing a costume at the office Halloween party? What if I’m the only one not wearing a costume? How long do I need to stay at Thanksgiving dinner for it to be considered an acceptable appearance? Would it be rude if I just stayed home from that Christmas party and watched TV instead? Will my parents like their gift? Did I spend too much money on this present? Am I having enough fun? Have I checked off all the holiday traditions yet?
Last year, all this anxiety was compounded by the birth of my daughter.
I’m not trying to blame a 1-year-old child for a rough holiday season or for my anxiety—which predates her by many years. But she was born two days before Thanksgiving, and my rocky transition into parenthood darkened the rest of that following November and December. Postpartum depression, anxiety, and a screaming newborn made for a challenging Christmas Day.
My partner and I were zombies, barely coping with the torturous sleep deprivation, yet still clinging to whatever normalcy we could grasp on our favorite holiday. We took our daughter, just over a month old, to our traditional Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant. The drive took twice as long as it should have because of the thick snow falling onto the street. Our baby cried and cried during the meal, and I cried too out of desperation.
But on the drive home we passed at least a dozen people holding cardboard signs and asking for food or money. They were braving a foot of snow, most of them without a coat. And I wanted to cry again—all I could offer them was my leftover sweet and sour chicken.
I’m not going to say that we can’t still be upset or anxious when others have it worse in the world. That’s not my secret to getting through the holidays. But that moment was the point when I realized how much pressure I was exerting on myself and on others. I wanted to tick all the boxes of what Christmas should be or what it should feel like, based on what it had always been for me. I wanted to meet these unrealistic expectations for my usual holiday traditions without accounting for the fact that everything was different with this new baby in my life.
The pressure was making me frantic. So at that moment, my partner and I decided to remove the pressure, remove the complications. We changed our plans for the rest of the day and instead we met up with family to hang out—no expectations or pressure allowed.
As Thanksgiving approaches this year, I can feel myself growing more anxious. It’s like my body can already remember the stress it felt twelve months ago, and it’s tensing up to brace for impact. But I am already preparing a survival plan.
This year, my survival plan is all about simplifying.
For me, simplifying means letting go of my expectations and the expectations of others in favor of much-needed self-care. This might sound counterintuitive when we’re talking about the season of giving. Advocating for my own needs definitely goes against my inclinations, which are usually to accommodate others above all. But that’s exactly the kind of martyrdom that frustrates your loved ones and leaves you unsatisfied. Nobody wins.
The great thing about finally anticipating and tending to my own needs is that it actually reduces stress. Initially I struggled with feelings of guilt and anxiety about what others might think, but over time I have learned to embrace it. If I need to retreat to my bedroom for peace and quiet rather than watching a Christmas movie with the family, then I listen to that instinct.
It’s not about throwing away traditions but rather it’s about accepting that life gets busy sometimes, and it gets complicated, and you get tired, and that’s OK. Traditions are not what make the holidays. Thanksgiving can still be a special day to express gratitude even if you choose to do that differently from others. Christmas is still Christmas if you decide to skip out on the white elephant party.
Instead of exposing myself to unnecessary pressure, I’m opting for simple and realistic expectations. My priority is to keep myself calm and to enjoy the company of the people I love because I know that everything else will fall into place if I put those two goals first.