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Nov. 20, 2020

Ask the Expert: Managing anxiety through the holiday season

"Ask the Expert" articles provide information and insights from MSU scientists, researchers and scholars about national and global issues, complex research and general-interest subjects based on their areas of academic expertise and study. They may feature historical information, background, research findings, or offer tips.

It’s that time of year when families and friends gather to celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving and religious observances — but this is no ordinary year. In addition to the stress that holidays can bring, 2020 has added the weight of a global pandemic.


Jason Moser, professor of psychology and director of the Clinical Psychophysiology Lab at Michigan State University, discusses how concerns related to COVID-19 may compound existing holiday-related stress, while also offering tips to cope with anxiety to get through the holiday season.


What is it about the holidays that makes people anxious?

Around the holidays, there are so many sources that bring people to feeling stressed or anxious. For some people, the social aspect of holidays activates all their social anxieties about failure, hobnobbing and giving speeches. Certainly, the “performance” aspect of the holidays can make everyone anxious and on edge – which can be for family and friends alike. For others, it’s just more to do that adds to the already long list of to-dos.   


How might the stress of COVID affect existing anxieties?

A big part of the experience of stress and anxiety feels like a pile — just getting bigger and bigger (or, the proverbial pot or bucket overflowing).


So much of what we work on in our lab is related to worry — or, the negative, anxiety-provoking thoughts we all have swimming around our heads. The more you worry, the harder it makes other things. So, if you add stress about COVID to the stress about the holidays, you are just making that pile bigger, that pot fuller — all the little (and big) things add up. 


People are asking, ‘Where and how will I do the holidays? What sort of safety precautions will need to be taken? If we do it outside, how will that work? Can I invite older relatives?  What other precautions do I need to take for them?’


It’s all these thoughts, building, swimming, filling you up that will surely make existing stress of the holidays harder and harder.  


If people used to get stressed about being around family, will quarantine be a sense of relief – or unleash all new stressors?

People will feel stuck in an approach-avoid conflict — think, the “do I stay, or do I go?” lyrics ringing in our heads.


Even if quarantine feels like the right way to go (and a way out!) people will still have the desire to be together, and grapple and struggle with whether getting together or staying apart works for their families. This will likely still create discomfort and stress for many and while there might be some who feel relief, my guess is the majority of folks will still feel stressed by the push-pull of wanting to get together.


Unlike other sources for anxiety, you can’t necessarily dust off and move on from family. How can one manage their anxiety when they’re obligated to be around the source of it?

Coping in the moment is important for a lot of anxiety, and family anxiety can be somewhat thought of as social anxiety.  Here, we try and encourage people to get out of their heads and into the moment.  


Here are some quick tips:

  • Try and stay focused on conversations and being present. 
  • Try not to get caught up in the anxious mind running away with various negative thoughts about a certain family member. 
  • Taking breaks can also be helpful; find a quiet place for yourself and take some calming breaths — in through the nose, from the belly, out through the mouth. 
  • Try to focus on gratitude for being together. Take a moment to reflect on what you're thankful for regarding your family.  And, for those apart, try and arrange some sort of virtual gathering.  Maybe even plan, cook and/or eat meals together or celebrate moments (opening presents, lighting Chanukah candles) together, albeit online.


This has been a tense year for many. Is there a way to cope when touchy/controversial subjects are brought into conversation?

Try to stay in the moment and not get too caught up in the anxious mind, making assumptions or judging. Notice your feelings and stay curious — ask questions first to stimulate dialogue rather than just firing back with your opinion or to make a counterpoint.  The more we can be in a position to continue dialogue rather than debate, we can stay open and non-judgmental to make it less awkward, more authentic and potentially even less stressful.

By: Caroline Brooks

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