For many of us, the holiday season brings added responsibilities, obligations, and the unspoken pressure of perfection. “The most wonderful time of the year” can be an especially anxious time for those with high-functioning anxiety.
“High-functioning anxiety refers to someone who appears to be managing their life very well and have everything put together, however, they still suffer from excessive worry, stress, and at times obsessive thoughts,” Dr. Amelia Kelley, a trauma-informed therapist and co-author of What I Wish I Knew: Surviving and Thriving After an Abusive Relationship, explains to Lifehacker. “The holidays can worsen anxiety especially for those who appear high-functioning on the outside because of the amount of expectations and obligations that occur during the holidays [particularly when it comes to socialising and showing up for other people].”
Additionally, financial pressure and the “intensified pressure and break from normalcy can also negatively impact our health and wellness practices, resulting in the perfect storm to further intensify anxiety,” she says.
What are the signs of high-functioning anxiety?
Whether you’re concerned about yourself or a loved one, there are significant signs of high-functioning anxiety. According to Kelley, here’s what to look out for.
Insomnia or sleep issues. “Sleep is often the first sign something is out of balance with your mental health,” Kelley explains. “When our mind is racing it can be difficult to sleep, especially if you are suffering from anxiety. The anxious mind is very critical and is the opposite of the more creative, compassionate mind we need for sleep.”
Kelley recommends sticking to a soothing bedtime routine, reducing stress in the evening as much as possible, and detoxing from screens later in the evening. “All of this in combination with sustaining a regular sleep schedule is crucial for getting the sleep we need to help reduce holiday anxiety,” she says.
Pervasive negative self-talk and insecurity. “Part of suffering from high-functioning anxiety is the narrative about not being ‘good enough,’” Kelley says. “Even if it’s not a conscious thought, constantly overcommitting and comparing ourselves to others feeds the idea that we are destined to fail.”
If you’re struggling with FOMO or comparing your holiday celebrations to another, Kelley suggests limiting social media during the holidays. Also, make a deliberate habit of practicing self-compassion. “Notice if you are being hard on yourself with criticism and instead reframe your thoughts and self-talk as if you were talking to a friend or someone else you care deeply about,” she says. “Clients I work with find it helps to create a mantra of self-compassion such as ‘I am more than good enough’ any time they slip into negative self-talk.”
Dwelling on the past or future. “If you find it difficult to remain in the present, or you find you are constantly feeling nostalgic for the past, this is a sign of high-functioning anxiety during the holidays,” Kelly says. “Even listening to the lyrics of some of the most classic holiday songs are often focused on ‘days of past’ or ‘time gone by.’ The holidays carry a lot of symbolism and memories and can draw us out of the present. This is especially true for those experiencing grief over the loss of a loved one.”
According to Kelley, the best way to manage this is to practice grounding skills at the moment. “Take a breath and look where you are, reflect on each ornament as you decorate instead of rushing to get it done,” she advises. “Be open to changing or adding new traditions to welcome the pure potential of the future. And if you do feel it hard not to dwell on the past, especially when experiencing grief, surround yourself with loved ones who are ok with you ‘not feeling ok.’”
Kelley says it’s key to ask for help from others and take some pressure off yourself and take a moment to slow down, be present, and check in whether you have a personal need that is not being met.
Physical discomfort and/or agitation. “Anxiety can cause tension in the body that aggravates chronic pain issues such as headaches, stomach issues, and other autoimmune disorders,” Kelley explains. “It’s also common to become more susceptible to medical illness, as pervasive anxiety has a negative impact on our immune systems.”
Kelley recommends meditation and yoga, in addition to breath work and physical exercise that can also help relieve tension in the body. Another way to mitigate anxiety-induced tension is to be mindful of what you are eating and drinking during the holidays. “It can be common to overindulge with an endless supply of sweets at almost every event, but be aware that not practicing moderation will leave you more susceptible to anxiety. Take the time to enjoy the food and drinks, but remember you do not have to say yes to every offering.”
Why it’s important to manage your expectations
Most importantly, manage your expectations. “Remember that it’s ok to say no,” Kelley says. “People will still know who you are and love you even if you don’t send a holiday card. Try striving for imperfection wherever you can by accepting things that are out of your control and knowing that not everything we expect to happen will happen. This shift in thinking allows for a more self-compassionate tone, such as allowing you to laugh when things don’t go as expected, instead of getting hard on ourselves.”
She adds that it’s also key to embrace imperfection. “If the goal is imperfection it helps curb the pressure individuals with high-functioning anxiety put on themselves. If the present you wrap doesn’t look perfect, or the cookies get a little burned, embrace your efforts and move on,” she says.