The end of the year seems to quickly usher in the season of holiday gatherings. Suddenly, you’ve got a pile of party invitations, or even events that you’re planning, that are building up in the back of your mind. While the goal of these get-togethers is to have fun, they can come with their own set of stressors.
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Especially if you experience anxiety or have a complicated relationship with your family, holiday functions can be difficult to navigate at times. And you shouldn’t feel ashamed for feeling that way. “It’s really common for people to have holiday stress for a variety of reasons,” says psychologist Dawn Potter, PsyD.
Here’s how you can tame anxious feelings and stressful preparations while making the most of the season.
Why do holiday parties make us anxious?
You glance at your calendar, and the holiday party is weeks away. But you’re already feeling that pit in your stomach about the upcoming preparations.
“On the one hand, this gives you time to figure out what’s going to make that event better for you,” says Dr. Potter. “On the other hand, that signifies pretty significant anxiety.”
Some of the reasons you may have anxiety around holiday parties may include:
Dr. Potter points out that general anxiety can stem from whether you’re the host or an attendee of a party — but both situations come with different stressors.
If you’re the host, you may be worried about the food preparation, making sure everything’s coordinated and getting your home or location ready (this is often when that toxic perfectionism kicks in for a lot of people).
If you’re an attendee, you may be triggered by the idea of talking with people you don’t know or feeling overstimulated by a new environment.
Another possible reason for feeling stressed or anxious in anticipation of a holiday party is the pressure you’re putting on yourself to have fun. As odd as it sounds, we can sometimes be so hard on ourselves that we actually get mad when we’re not having fun when we’re supposed to — such as during the holidays.
How to deal with holiday party anxiety
Here are some tips and reminders when entering the throes of the holiday party season:
If you’re the host, give yourself a break
Yes, you may be in charge of the food, decorations and guest list, but you can’t fully control everything.
Dr. Potter suggests letting a bit of that control go by reaching out to ask for help if you need it. Something as simple as a couple of people bringing some side dishes or putting someone on dishwasher duty can take a level of stress off you. And remember, you can’t be everywhere at once and take care of everyone all the time. Once you get the main preparations done, let the party unfold and run on its own.
“It’s also important to remember that as the host, you’re responsible for things like providing the space and maybe the food. However, everybody at the party is responsible for themselves for making sure that they have a good time,” says Dr. Potter.
If you’re attending a party, take the spotlight off yourself
Feeling jitters for an upcoming party you’re invited to? Especially if you’re dealing with social anxiety, it can be hard to get out of your own head and simply enjoy the event you’re attending. Maybe you’re already worrying about who you’ll talk to or what you’ll talk about. The best way to come out of this spiral is to take the spotlight off yourself.
“Most people are much more focused on themselves than they are on you,” Dr. Potter notes. “They are more likely in a conversation to be thinking about what they want to say next than to paying attention to your every word.”
Also, if you’re someone who applies perfectionism even to your social interactions, Dr. Potter recommends trying to let go of those tendencies as well. Instead of holding yourself to the standard of being the perfect party guest, let your conversations flow naturally. This way, you’re more apt to feel like yourself and connect naturally with others.
“People are more likely to warm up to you if they see little flaws and quirks so that they can relate to you better and not feel like they need to measure up in some way,” Dr. Potter says. “Sometimes, perfectionism can be counterproductive when all we want is connection.”
Address any tension before the event
A big source of anxiety or dread related to a holiday function may be connected to a specific person or past situation. Maybe there’s some unresolved conflict between family members or a person you’re nervous about seeing (but still can’t avoid). Dr. Potter recommends trying to address any tension like this before the event, to help give your mind as much peace as possible.
Create healthy boundaries
Of course, when it comes to navigating tough relationships, it may not be possible to address them before the holiday event. If so, Dr. Potter says that, in general, it’s good to have a plan for how you’ll set boundaries with certain people at the event.
“If you don’t think it’s something you can address head-on, you may want to have a plan for how you’re going to limit your contact with that person, if you know that you have a difficult relationship with them,” states Dr. Potter. This could mean leaving the event earlier or deciding ahead of time where you’ll sit at the table.
You don’t need alcohol to have fun
Many people like to enjoy a beer, cocktail or wine during the holidays. But if you’re someone who’s chosen to be sober, alcohol may add another layer of anxiety.
“For example, if somebody is in recovery, holiday parties might take on a whole new level of stress because that is potentially a risk factor for having a relapse,” explains Dr. Potter.
Even if you aren’t in recovery, you may want to limit alcohol if you’re prone to anxiety at parties. “Using alcohol as a sort of social lubricant is a really risky activity,” states Dr. Potter. “It may make you feel better in the moment; however, when you’re anxious, you are at risk of drinking too much.”
Just know that it’s totally OK to go for a mocktail or a nonalcoholic drink during the holidays — it doesn’t make you any less festive!
And remember: It’s OK to say ‘no’
Many of us are scared of this little two-letter word — but it can be quite magical. If you’re a people pleaser, it can be even harder to decline invitations or set boundaries with friends and family during the holiday season. The important thing to remember is that not only can you say no, but you can also choose how you say it.
A good way to say “no” gently to a party invite:
Step 1: Start off by validating their feelings. Especially if you’re expecting a negative response from the person, it may be helpful to start off by telling them you feel sorry for not attending. You can say something like: “I regret that this may be disappointing to you.”
Step 2: Gently explain why you can’t come, while being honest about your feelings and needs. You can try saying: “I need to put myself, my mental health and/or my immediate family first.”
Step 3: If possible, try and make plans for a future event where you can see the person. Give the person (and yourself) something else to look forward to.
At the same time, sometimes a simple explanation of “I can’t make it this year” is enough.
“You don’t always owe it to everyone to justify your decision either,” says Dr. Potter. “Sometimes, you don’t have to explain at length or your rationale and go back and forth to justify yourself.”
At the end of the day, the holiday season can and should be a time for your to relax, unwind and have fun. Sure, there will be inevitable stress that comes with it, but that doesn’t have to overshadow the good times you want to have. And who knows, maybe you’ll end up having more fun than you expected and feel a bit less dread about next year’s parties.