As hard as it is to believe, the holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, bowl games—yes, those are holidays) are almost here. And the usual response to those is to worry. There are presents to buy, family to see (some of whom you really might not like very much, even if you love them), flights to plan, “traditional” food to eat and plotting how to avoid the Kenny G. Christmas album. Whether you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to afford everything or you’re just trying to deal with conflicting relational feelings, chances are, you’re already starting to worry about the holidays.
It’s a natural response, closely aligned with our "fight or flight" instinct. When faced with a potentially dangerous situation, we have an emergency impulse to either: 1) defend ourselves or 2) scream like a girl and run away. Problem is, we aren’t real good at the first option, ninjas and vampire slayers aside. We’re slow. Our teeth are dull, our nails aren’t particularly sharp and we’re not able to, for instance, confuse predators by expelling foul clouds of ink, like an octopus.
Which is a shame, really, because that would be cool.
So we try a different "fight or flight" tactic—control. Physically speaking, we turn to weaponry. We learned to forge steel and harness gunpowder in order to control dangerous animals and other humans. Mentally, we exert control another way. It’s called worry.
In some situations, worry is good for us. People become more efficient and productive upon encountering situational anxiety. It’s what drives us to roll up our sleeves and finish a project on a tight deadline. It allows us to keep a level head during a medical emergency. And it can lead us to finally sucking it up and dealing with a budget when we’re confronted with rising holiday costs. Situational anxiety is completely natural. It’s fueled by adrenaline, lasts for a brief period of time, and occurs proportionately to the circumstance.
But there’s also a bad kind of worry that’s driven by insecurity rather than external forces. It’s destructive instead of helpful and tends to blow things out of proportion. While situational anxiety wears off, destructive anxiety is persistent. It breaks you down physically, leaving sleepless nights, headaches, ulcers, depression or even a suppressed immune system in its wake. Not good.
For most of us, destructive worry creeps up when something occurs that makes us feel like we’re losing control. As the responsibilities stack up and our sense of control diminishes, we feebly attempt to regain it by asking "what if." Worry is our way of preparing ourselves to face the unknown by focusing on the worst possible outcome. It’s like personal damage control because we feel honest relief when things don’t turn out as bad as we thought.
The problem is that the end result—the relief—is not proportionate to the process. Being pleasantly surprised when you don’t end up hating your sister after family Christmas doesn’t exactly cancel out the ulcers you developed along the way.
How can I stop worrying?
It’s hard, because many people are chronic worriers. Telling them to cut back on anxiety is like telling someone to stop digesting food. Where would you even start?
There’s a chance these extreme worriers suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which is said to strike more than 4 million Americans every year. It’s a chronic condition, characterized by six months or more of exaggerated stress at a level much more severe than what’s considered normal. GAD sufferers worry about money, health, family or work—even when those areas of life are trouble-free. They teeter on the edge of depression and may even entertain suicidal thoughts. If you fall into this category, the following suggestions probably won’t help much. Talk to your physician about it. Describe how you feel and any symptoms that accompany your worry (aches and pains, insomnia, fatigue). The answer might be professional care, cognitive therapy or medication—or some combination of the three.
If your worry is less severe, here are some tips:
Check your medicine cabinet. Some prescription meds and over-the-counter products like nasal sprays, diet pills and decongestants can generate feelings of anxiety.
Cut back on the caffeine. Because it stimulates your nervous system, too much caffeine may also increase nervousness. Go figure.
Exercise regularly. When stress levels rise and you feel like there’s just not enough time in the day to get things done, one of the first victims is regular exercise. Bad move. Exercising regularly keeps you physically healthy. And it pumps up your mental well-being, too. Yes, we realize your belly will be full of turkey for the next month—exercise anyway.
Learn how to relax. Activities like prayer, deep breathing, listening to soothing music or doing yoga all are powerful stress-breakers. Find some way to take your mind off the worry and relax, even if it’s something as simple as counting backward from one hundred.
Give worry a time and place. Some mental health experts actually recommend chronic worriers allow themselves a controlled, self-regulated anxiety session once a day—but on their terms. Designate a specific time and place to worry about stuff. When that time comes, spend a few minutes thinking about your worries and what you should do about them. Make a checklist or devise a plan of action. Focus on what you can do to take care of it. Then return to your day. If any other worries crop up, sweep them into the corner until your next "worry session."
The most important thing to remember when anxiety creeps up is to take action. When the piles on your desk grow to high-rise level, find a way to work more efficiently or delegate. Do medical research online if you’re confronted by a family sickness. Figure out where your problems are with family members, and try to work through them (either with the other person or in yourself) before you have to see them at the dinner table. Take charge of your finances when money gets tight. Develop a budget for Christmas presents. Do something—anything—to help you exert some control over your anxiety. Just sitting around marinating in worry is the worst thing you can do.