Anxiety and the Holidays: Quick Coping Tools

holiday stress coping toolsHolidays are an extra sensitive and difficult time for many people for all kinds of reasons- the sensory overload alone can be enough to make some of us want to retreat to one of those sensory deprivation float tanks invented in the sixties.

In addition to the sensory overload, many people are dealing with dysfunctional family issues, and all the negative self-talk that comes with issues like depression, anxiety, PTSD and others, come bubbling up to the surface in rapid order.

I’ve always heard that it’s a really hard time of year for people struggling with the above sorts of issues.  On my PTSD Pinterest board right now this particular pin is getting repinned and ‘liked’ several times a day.


I’m not an expert and this is not professional advice, which you should definitely seek if your issues are making it hard for your to cope.

This is just a collection of things I’ve tried, intend to try, know somebody else has tried, or think I ought to try. Not every one of them works for everybody in every situation, naturally. I also don’t profess to know for a scientific fact why some of these work. I suspect for many of them, it’s simply a focused way to distract you from something negative and force your attention on to something positive or at least only neutral.

Ground yourself in the moment. This works particularly for disassociation and flashbacks associated with PTSD, but can also help if your form of anxiety issues have a tendency of hogtying you and tossing you off a cliff into the raging rapids of stress, what ifs, and misinterpreting every human interaction as ‘they hate me’. (Even if that’s not a misinterpretation, grounding yourself in the here and now can help distract you from the possibly unpleasant realities of other people’s emotions). Basically, this is just a way of focusing on the physical here and now, and you do this by using the five senses. These are just suggestions, again, like the rest of the post:

Touch: Hold an ice cube and think about it, not all that other overwhelming stuff. Rub a worry stone while reciting a favorite Bible verse or a poem, or saying the times tables if that’s what you need to do. Me, the times tables would induce more anxiety. Keep a piece of sandpaper or an emory board in your pocket and finger it.

Found at

Found at

Smell: Peel an orange or a lemon, focusing on the fragrance, inhaling deeply and slowly. Rub your fingers on the peels, crushing them a bit and focus on the scent. Crush a fresh herb between your fingers (rosemary, basil, thyme, one of the mints) and sniff deeply. Keep a bottle of essential oil or your favorite perfume around, sniff deeply. It sometimes helps to breathe in the scent while you count four seconds, hold your breath for a count of 7, then exhale slowly for 8 seconds.  I think the main benefit from this method, by the way, is the focus you add to the exercise by counting.  You can also try fixing yourself a cup of hot herbal tea and holding the hot cup in your hands while breathing in the tea, slowly inhale, hold, slow, steady exhale. I would use Tension Tamer or something like that- something with Kava Kava or Valerian in it.

Some people use essential oils and diffuser necklaces, like this: Celtic Cross Copper Aromatherapy Essential Oil & Diffuser Necklace. I don’t use the necklace. I just drop a bottle of lavender or orange oil in my purse and sniff it like smelling salts.  I also have some in a basket by my bed. If it embarrasses you to do this in public, excuse yourself to go to the bathroom as often as it takes.

I do keep a diffuser plugged in in my bathroom and bedroom almost all the time so I can stop and smell the roses, so to speak, as often as I need to. I have: Oil Diffuser, the more old school Porcelain Tear Drop Oil Warmer Candle Holder, and the Scentball Plug In Electric Diffuser).

Again, I don’t think the point here is the *oils*, it’s the act of grounding yourself and using a strong scent that you like to focus on as a tool to help you with that grounding.

Hearing:  iPod, head phones, K-Pop, baby.  But whatever rocks your soul and helps to distract you from the things you need to be distracted from. This is probably not the time for the gentle, soothing tones of harp music or gregorian chant. You want something that you can enjoy that will be loud enough to distract you, to jar your thoughts out of the ugly ruts.

Taste: I haven’t tried this one, but I have read advice to bite into a sour lemon when you need fight a fright train of oncoming anxiety through grounding.


Other ideas for coping in a large crowd and hustle and bustle:

Lots of trips to the bathroom, as many as you need to cushion yourself against the noise, the press and pressure, and hurly burly din- take your essential oils, lemons and headphones if you need to.

Quiet time for you- and the babies if you have little ones- during the day. Just make it known that has to be part of your routine, and then disappear to the bedroom for two hours in the afternoon.

 Have headphones, white noise of some sort to keep the Awful Din down to a dull roar.

If you have this option- set up an introvert area- if you are part of a large family group at somebody else’s house consider bringing along a puzzle or one of those adult colouring books (with designs like this) and a tv tray if you can.  Set it up in a corner space somewhere that isn’t quite as noisy as other places in the house- and retire there to work on the puzzle or to colour.  Not only does this give you something to concentrate on beyond your rising panic, these are things that don’t scream “I hate the world” or “Leave me alone!”  Somebody else can join you and do them with you, but usually only one or two people at a time- especially if you choose a smaller area (assuming the layout works for this).

Bring something to do with your hands- I learned to crochet just for this. All I can do is basically a chain stitch and rows of more chain stitches, but that’s okay because the only reason I do it is to keep my hands occupied. It’s therapeutic.  It doesn’t matter what it is- crop photos by hand, cut coupons out of magazines or newspapers, do somebody’s nails, braid a little girl’s hair, knit, embroider, cross-stitch, play Sudoku puzzles or sew buttons on shirt (or a Christmas ornament). Do origami. Make paper hats out of newspapers.  I prefer reading, and probably most of you do, too, but that shuts people out (which may be why we prefer it) and increases the distance between you and them, which you probably don’t need right now.  You just need something you can do with your hands so you can focus on that when you need to redirect your thinking, calm yourself, and give yourself a bit of emotional insulation.

If there are a lot of kids, supply a few little prizes and induce them to play a quieter game like hide the thimble: o person hides the thimble, the only rule being it has to be where it can be seen without moving something.  The others troop in and look for the thimble. But when you see it, you are not supposed to tell where it is, you just sit down quietly and let the others hunt.
Another game you can play that requires some quiet is to hide something that makes a little noise (like a ticking clock, but probably you can set a smart phone to do something), and then have people hunt for it. They can’t be loud because then they can’t hear it. Maybe bring a few people at a time to play this game in one of the furthest rooms in the house.

Bring little ear protectors that aren’t easily seen and wear them when it starts to get overwhelmingly loud.

Go to bed early, but read, or watch a movie on your laptop or iPad.

Volunteer to run errands if that’s not something that sets off your internal alarms.

Know the things that set off your internal alarms and be firm about not setting them off.  Don’t be guilt tripped into triggering yourself, either (easier said than done).  You have a right not to expose yourself to things that trigger flashbacks and disassociation.

Go for a ten minute walk. Try some other quick, short exercise or stretching- retreat to the bathroom and do some knee bends.  Play hopscotch with the kids (use masking tape to make a hopscotch square).  Do some light stretching.

Hug yourself.  Seriously.  This isn’t just about some feel-good mumbo jumbo from the self-esteem movement.  Put your right hand on your left elbow, right hand on the left elbow, then squeeze in and up, slightly hunching your shoulders.  This is a massage technique that helps release tension. You can also try the bilateral movements described here (part of EMDR therapy)- putting your hands on opposite shoulders, tape with first one hand, then the other, left right, left right. Read more about that here. 

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