Dr. Jason Moser provides advice for managing holiday season anxiety

November 20, 2020 - Caroline Brooks

It’s that time of year when families and friends gather to celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving and religious observances — but this is no ordinary year. In addition to the stress that holidays can bring, 2020 has added the weight of a global pandemic.


Jason Moser, professor of psychology and director of the Clinical Psychophysiology Lab at Michigan State University, discusses how concerns related to COVID-19 may compound existing holiday-related stress, while also offering tips to cope with anxiety to get through the holiday season.


What is it about the holidays that makes people anxious?

Around the holidays, there are so many sources that bring people to feeling stressed or anxious. For some people, the social aspect of holidays activates all their social anxieties about failure, hobnobbing and giving speeches. Certainly, the “performance” aspect of the holidays can make everyone anxious and on edge – which can be for family and friends alike. For others, it’s just more to do that adds to the already long list of to-dos.   


How might the stress of COVID affect existing anxieties?

A big part of the experience of stress and anxiety feels like a pile — just getting bigger and bigger (or, the proverbial pot or bucket overflowing).


So much of what we work on in our lab is related to worry — or, the negative, anxiety-provoking thoughts we all have swimming around our heads. The more you worry, the harder it makes other things. So, if you add stress about COVID to the stress about the holidays, you are just making that pile bigger, that pot fuller — all the little (and big) things add up. 


Unlike other sources for anxiety, you can’t necessarily dust off and move on from family. How can one manage their anxiety when they’re obligated to be around the source of it?

Coping in the moment is important for a lot of anxiety, and family anxiety can be somewhat thought of as social anxiety.  Here, we try and encourage people to get out of their heads and into the moment.  


Here are some quick tips:

  • Try and stay focused on conversations and being present. 
  • Try not to get caught up in the anxious mind running away with various negative thoughts about a certain family member. 
  • Taking breaks can also be helpful; find a quiet place for yourself and take some calming breaths — in through the nose, from the belly, out through the mouth. 
  • Try to focus on gratitude for being together. Take a moment to reflect on what you're thankful for regarding your family.  And, for those apart, try and arrange some sort of virtual gathering.  Maybe even plan, cook and/or eat meals together or celebrate moments (opening presents, lighting Chanukah candles) together, albeit online.

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