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Helping A Loved One with Anxiety During the Holidays

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Dinner parties and other holiday gatherings can trigger anxiety for all sorts of reasons. 

Some people have difficult histories with their families. Politics or other hot topics can lead to arguments, which can be especially hard for someone with anxiety. Others struggle with crowds or sensory overload.


"Anxiety is not one-size-fits-all. Ask your loved one what they need."


If you have a loved one struggling with anxiety, you can learn to be a source of support. Here are 5 tips to help avoid potential stressors this holiday season.

Don't force activity

Dr. Scott Irwin, professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai, says the first thing to remember is that anxiety is a human feature, not a flaw. 

"Anxiety is wired into us by evolution," he says. "It's a useful emotion that helps us identify threats and protect us from danger." 

The trouble arises when anxiety stops someone from living life the way they'd like to, so be sensitive to what your loved one is experiencing.

"If they really don't want to go to the big family dinner, don't try to talk them into it. If they want to go and are struggling with anxiety, that's where you can help," says clinical social worker Jan-Kees Van Der Gaag.

"Never tell someone with anxiety to just get over it."



Match your actions to their needs

Anxiety is not one-size-fits-all. Ask your loved one what they need.

If they're anxious about going to a party, talk through options in a calm moment before the event and figure out what's going to work for them. Jan-Kees says some people appreciate a buddy system. 

"If you know your spouse can't deal with that loud uncle, you can agree ahead of time to come over and take their place if he won't stop talking."

If that isn't possible, agree to leave at a certain time, or come up with a signal for when it's time to go.

Help them temper their thinking

People who are anxious often emphasize worst-case scenarios.

To help them get perspective, ask them to think about the following questions: What's the worst that could happen? What's the best that could happen? What's most realistic or likely?


"The most important thing is to let your loved one know they're not alone."


Share coping strategies

Mindfulness is an important tool for people with anxiety, says Dr. Irwin. 

"Meditation, deep chest breathing, and progressive relaxation are very helpful," he says, "as is sleep, which is the best antidote for many conditions."

If your loved one isn't aware of this, let them know. Again, bring it up ahead of time when they're in a good place.

You can also make use of your loved one's insights into their anxiety. Help them spot when their anxiety-driven patterns happen. To do this, get their permission first. It's important to respect their limits.



Learn about therapy

Ideally, someone with anxiety should seek professional help before they have to deal with triggers. If they're open to it, encourage them to see a professional who has experience with cognitive behavioral therapy, which Jan-Kees says is highly effective. 

"It takes time, so starting therapy sooner rather than later is a good idea," he says. 

Offer to attend a session with them and learn about the treatment so you can better understand what they're going through. 

Dr. Irwin adds that medication can also be helpful. 

"A good doctor or social worker will come up with a personalized plan and also make adjustments over time," he says. "The most important thing is to let your loved one know they're not alone. There's help out there, and it can make all the difference."