‘Tis the season to be jolly!
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Unfortunately, ‘tis also the season to fly home with sick, screaming children in tow. To struggle to get comfortable in your childhood bed and have oddly heated arguments with your parents about the proper way to fold a hand towel. To navigate around seemingly countless conversational minefields at the dinner table. And let’s not forget lying awake at 4 a.m. wondering if you peaked in high school!
In other words, ‘tis the season for hometown anxiety and holiday regression.
These aren’t clinical conditions. They’re popular terms that describe the emotional and psychological baggage we tend to bring home with us during the holiday season — and the impact unpacking that baggage can have on the way we behave around our families and friends.
We talked to psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, about hometown anxiety and holiday regression. She explains why they’re such common issues, how to avoid them and what to do when they rear their ugly heads.
For good and for ill, there’s no place like home for the holidays. If you’ve gone away for school, moved out of the area or don’t spend a lot of time with your family, chances are good you’re going to experience a little anxiety when you come home.
“Hometown anxiety isn’t a diagnosis, but it’s a useful term,” Dr. Albers explains. “It refers to feeling uneasy, stressed or uncomfortable about returning to your hometown — or your childhood home — during the holiday season.”
The exact reason for the discomfort varies from person to person, but Dr. Albers says that the end result is frequently the same: A feeling similar to culture shock. But in this case, you’re not navigating completely new terrain. You’re tiptoeing through what Dr. Albers describes as a “minefield of memories.“
If you’ve been away for a while, you’ve changed. And so have the people you’re going to visit. Heck, your hometown itself may have changed. That can mean that the holiday you’re expecting might not be the holiday you get. Sometimes, that’s very good news. And sometimes, it isn’t.
While you can’t formally diagnose a person with hometown anxiety, anxiety itself is a very real psychological condition. The same goes for holiday regression.
While many people know what anxiety looks and feels like, regression might be a bit harder to pin down. According to the scholarly literature, Dr. Albers says that regression is a psychological defense mechanism. Basically, you revert to an earlier developmental stage in order to cope with severe stress, trauma or a mental health crisis of some kind.
Unless a person has an underlying mental health condition like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), severe anxiety or depression, holiday regression is usually not that big a deal. More than anything, it’s unpleasant.
“It's normal to experience a bit of holiday regression because you’re falling back into old roles,” Dr. Albers explains. “Families also often get stuck in those specific roles, expectations and communication styles when they get together during the holidays. Old patterns can resurface as soon as you step foot inside your childhood home.”
Those patterns are usually triggered by what are called “implicit memories.”
“Implicit memories are memories that are stored in our brain,” Dr. Albers says. “They influence how we think and how we feel without our awareness.” She explains that it’s sort of like riding a bike. Even after many years, you don’t have to work hard to remember how to ride a bike. The memory lives inside of you and surfaces when it’s needed.
“The same thing can happen when you’re in a familiar situation in your hometown,” she continues. “You may be acting and responding in an unconscious way.”
Maybe you suddenly expect your parents to do your laundry. Maybe they do it without being asked because “their baby” is back home. Maybe they keep calling you by that childhood nickname you hated, or imposing curfews. And you explode in response — just like you did when you were a teenager.
Maybe you and your friends go out and party like you did in the good old days … and suffer the not-so-good side effects the next morning. The push and pull between who you were and who you are, combined with the standard-issue stress and depression people experience during the holiday season, can be a recipe for regressive (and aggressive) behavior.
Don’t get us wrong. Returning to a warm, nurturing environment can be wonderful. Sometimes, it’s nice to be babied! But regression isn’t nice or fun. It’s destabilizing.
You can never completely eliminate holiday anxiety. And you can’t always prevent regression. They’re as much a part of the season as string lights, latkes, yule logs and kinaras. But being prepared can make the experience easier. And mindfulness practices can help you turn things around if they start going south.
Perfectly behaved children in matching pajamas. Platter upon platter of fresh baked cookies and steaming hot cider. Luxury cars with big red bows on them. Between movies and social media, you could be forgiven for thinking that everybody but you is having a picture-perfect holiday.
If you want to tamp down hometown anxiety, one of the best things you can do is anticipate it. Dr. Albers notes that home is a place we tend to either glorify or demonize. So, go into the holidays with the understanding that the place you’re going to might not be the place you remember. The places, people and relationships you’re returning to probably should change because that’s what happens when time passes.
“Just don’t be surprised or caught off guard by it,” Dr. Albers advises. “Your high school may not look the same anymore. The town might not be as big or small as you remember. You might not get that same feeling of nostalgia as you walk around and meet old friends.”
If you go into your trip expecting a few pleasant surprises, deflating experiences, embarrassing regressions and big changes, it’ll be easier to cope with them — and accept that a less-than-perfect holiday is the only kind of holiday there is.
“A little bit of hometown anxiety is quite normal,” Dr. Albers concedes. “But if it’s affecting your sleep, your eating or your day-to-day functioning, it’s really important to talk to a therapist.” It’s possible you’ve got more than just winter blues.
“A therapist can help unravel and disentangle other issues from that hometown anxiety,” Dr. Albers notes.
Seeing a therapist or trained mental health professional before you go home is also a good idea if you tend to struggle with holiday regression.
“It can be helpful to sit down with a therapist to identify what your role in the family is and how or why that may reemerge when you are in your childhood bed or sitting at the dinner table,” Dr. Albers continues. That may help you identify your holiday regression triggers.
While most of us experience hometown anxiety or holiday regression from time to time, our triggers aren’t all the same. They’re shaped by your family dynamics, as well as your personal and mental health history.
“It’s important to anticipate ahead of time what kinds of situations, conversations or even specific words can push your buttons. Start preparing to encounter them ahead of time,” Dr. Albers suggests.
While everybody’s triggers are different, Dr. Albers also notes that alcohol and other substances are great at creating uncomfortable situations and volatility between people. If you’re really worried about going home, you might want to start your “Dry January” a bit early.
When you’re young, a lot of elements of your identity get decided by other people. It’s easy to get pigeonholed into a stereotype.
“As an adult, you’ve broken free from those roles,” Dr. Albers says, “but the people in your life may still treat you like you’re playing the role they gave you. They might not recognize the role you have evolved into.”
That means it falls on you to remember your real identity.
Dr. Albers recommends making a list of who you are as an adult, in this moment. To do this, she suggests using “I am” statements that ground you in the present moment. If somebody’s treating you like a child, criticizing you or bringing up memories you’d rather forget, run your “I am” statements on a loop in your head.
And while you’re at it, Dr. Albers says don’t forget to actually BE yourself.
“It can be tempting to create the highlight reel or a glorified version of yourself when you go home,” she admits. “But remember to be authentic when you return home and embrace who you really are, as long as you can do so safely.” After all, your friends and loved ones can’t accept the new you if they never get to see it.
It’s a lot harder to regress if you’ve still got a foot in your current life. To do that, it’s important that you schedule some self-care that involves time away from your family and hometown buddies. Making space for a little “me time” may be all you need to remember who “me” actually is.
If you need a little extra help, schedule calls with the friends and loved ones from the place you now call home. Cuddle up with a partner or child. Indulge in a new hobby or make time for a long walk with your dog. Follow your usual bedtime routine and eat your usual breakfast. In short, do whatever helps you feel more independent and secure in your identity.
You don’t have to be a brilliant writer to get something from the act of journaling. Dr. Albers recommends writing down your thoughts and feelings before, during and after your visit. Instead of trying to sound profound or brilliant, write with the curiosity of an explorer documenting their travels to distant lands.
“Use going home for the holidays as an opportunity to process how these situations make you feel,” Dr. Albers urges. “It will help you anticipate these situations in the future and have a stronger sense of how to cope with and respond to your triggers.”
Hometown anxiety and holiday regression are never going to disappear completely. But Dr. Albers is quick to point out that that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They can make the holidays more challenging than we’d like. But they can also offer valuable perspectives that we don’t get elsewhere in our lives.
“Stepping back into those roles can be uncomfortable,” she says. “But I guess the upside is that that little bit of discomfort can show you just how much you’ve evolved and grown over the years. You aren’t a moody teenager anymore, but until you step into that situation again, you may not be conscious of how far you’ve come.”
So, deck your halls, don your gay apparel and celebrate yourself. The many different journeys you took to get to where you are today may not have been worry-free, but they were worth it. And so is the journey you’re embarking on now.