Anxiety disorders are a very common mental health condition today, affecting an estimated 40 million people in the United States, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. In the most extreme cases of anxiety, people can endure panic attacks and even extreme physical symptoms like chest pain. And if you want to make up a list of common anxiety and stress triggers, you likely couldn’t find a better time of year to slap a person with anxiety disorders in the face with more of them at once than the holiday season.
Take being in large crowds of people, for example, which is obviously going to occur when it comes time to shop for gifts or holiday dinners. Or how about working within shorter windows for deadlines, when many people are cramming to fit in as much work as possible before many executives and clients start to spend time with family for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Years, and the list goes on. And then, of course, there’s all the travel that comes with such things, which also could involve being surrounded by more large crowds again at airports and packed freeways. Yes, the holidays are ripe with opportunities for a panic attack.
“There are a number of reasons why the holidays are so stressful,” says clinical psychologist, Ali Mattu, Ph.D. “When you are out shopping, there are a lot of people out shopping. There’s also more contact with family members, maybe family you haven’t seen, there’s the travel. … Get good at understanding what stresses you out, about one in four adults experiences an anxiety disorder. It is the most common mental illness among adults.”
So what may be other very common but easily overlooked anxiety triggers that are more likely to slip back into life under the radar during the holiday season? For starters, skipping meals is a simple one that’s easy to explain from a biological perspective. All those busy days filled with extra rushing around can lead to easily skipping at least one meal. And when you don’t eat, your blood sugar can drop, often leading to jittery hands and a physical triggering of anxiety. It’s also important to pay a bit more attention to what you’re eating during the holidays, as specific foods can trigger anxiety for some.
Parties, social events, and interpersonal conflicts are also common anxiety triggers that jump in our paths during the holidays as well. imagine all the Christmas parties full of complete strangers and the small talk you’ll be inclined to force with them. For many, this is a trigger near the top of the list, but maybe not as horrific or anxiety-inducing as confronting family tensions at the dinner table on Thanksgiving.
“When anxiety becomes a problem is when it starts to get in the way of your life if it starts to limit what you can do,” Mattu says. “People who struggle with anxiety are likely to experience a lot of strong physical symptoms, which could include heavy breathing, rapid heart rate, sweating, tension, dry mouth, increased temperature and the feeling of butterflies in your stomach.”
Naturally, we’re all hoping to make it through the holidays without unexpected panic attacks. Arming yourself with a little more awareness and simply being on high alert this time of year can be one step toward protecting yourself from anxiety.