“Holiday parties” is to “prison” as “fun” is to “anxiety.”
Even when counseling and coping mechanisms make walking through daily life easier than when anxiety reigns wild, the holiday season somehow still seems to knock much of the wind out of my sails. It’s not that I don’t enjoy Christmas time, but rather, there are calculating layers to every event I attend that I would argue most anxiety-free friends do not endure. Acute awareness and thoughts such as “Is my Christmas sweater really ugly enough?”, “What does cocktail attire really mean when it’s sub-freezing outside?”, and “What will everyone think of my Dirty Santa gift (even though no one knows it’s from me)?” barely scrape the surface of the tornado of thoughts I and others with regular or social anxiety might have around Christmas time.
Take this evening, for example. I have the honor and pleasure of attending a work party with my office co-workers, something I have been greatly looking forward to for the past month. The “normal” person would probably spend an appropriate amount of time trying to figure out something to wear to such a cocktail attire function, but then eventually find something cheerful and fitting to wear. Anxiety, on the other hand, lends itself to the downward spiral of thoughts such as “This doesn’t look good” to “That’s not even the right type of attire” to “I just won’t go” and finally “I can’t do anything right.” It’s not that these are thoughts those of us with anxiety choose to think; rather, our thoughts spin so quickly that, like car tires stuck in mud, once they begin to roll, they lose all traction. Eventually so much gravel and mud piles up, we can’t even remember where we started!
The plus side of being anxious at the holidays is that we will give our friends and family the best gifts and serve the yummiest dinners possible. We are type A, love to plan, and strive to out-do every way we can (as long as we don’t have to interact with many people to do so). Even if we question our Christmas sweater choice, trust that we will find the quirkiest and ugliest one! Even if we hate being in situations with lots of people, we will have the brightest smiles when meeting new faces.
However, my simple plea to you is this: if you have friends or family that struggle with anxiety, to be gracious yet firm with them during this holiday season. Be encouraging, but don’t let them give in. Understand that parties are difficult and best taken one step (and one person) at a time, and that if we are pushed too hard we will push back and probably choose to wait in the car over socializing with more people. Understand that under the surface could be a raging river, and we might be just one missed event on the schedule or one misplaced gift away from a panic attack or outburst. Working with us and helping us stay calm through our tightest and most anxiety-driving moments is really the best Christmas present you can give!