by Karen Cassiday, PhD

Let’s face it.  The holidays can be stressful for anyone with all of the expectations for joy, gift giving and getting together with family, friends and co-workers.  When you are prone to worry, social anxiety or depression, however, the pressure can feel doubled because you feel out of sync with all the expectations that apply pressure to your vulnerable spots.  Here is some advice that could help you to feel better prepared to avoid the pitfalls of the holiday pressure to be something that you are not.

For worriers: Your dilemma is how to manage your desire to plan and organize that perfect holiday and how to handle the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not you can pull it all off.  You may have overdone your research on Pinterest or set impossibly high standards for giving and getting the perfect gift.  You might already be feeling panicked about all of the shopping, going over budget, baking and wrapping that you have not yet done.  

Your solution is to remember that perfect planning and preparations do not a holiday make.  Being fully present emotionally is what creates human connection and love.  Your perfect ideal is your demon and you need to scale it back and remember that your family and friends would much rather enjoy being with you than being impressed by all that you have done.  Drop the pressure to delight, impress and amaze and instead select a few reasonable things to do and give that do not overstretch your budget or your ability to prepare.  Research shows that people value and remember experiences over things, so spending time playing a game or sharing an activity is much more meaningful than landing the perfect gift or meal.  

For the socially anxious: Your dilemma is how to manage your inclination to avoid people and to criticize yourself for not being somehow socially more clever than you are. You may have been dreading the family gathering, the intrusive questions about your social life, the holiday staff party or the workplace gift drawing. You have probably already thought up some great excuses for bowing out on these things because you feel pretty confident that you will feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or like you do not fit in.  

Your solution is to remember that avoidance will guarantee a lonely and self-critical holiday and is therefore no solution at all. Instead, you will need to gather up your courage and make it your goal to show up, only this time with a plan other than to avoid embarrassment. Research shows us that the secret to getting along well with other people is quite simple.  It is to show interest in them by doing two things, smiling at them and asking them open-ended questions. When we see others smiling at us and then showing curiosity in us, we cannot help but like them.  A great smile is the one that shows your teeth and creates wrinkles at the corners of your eyes and mouth. You cannot overdo this.  There is no such thing as over smiling. Start just asking everyone open-ended questions and forget about having to talk about yourself.  Load up your phone with open-ended questions, like these. When you forget which questions to ask, you can pretend to respond to a text and just look up another question.  The great thing about asking these questions is that that everyone enjoys them, including your family, co-workers, friends and strangers in the checkout line. You will also enjoy listening to the answers. This is a win win for everyone.

Lastly, if you are socially anxious, you need to address your tendency to engage in unfavorable social comparison that deems you the failure. Research shows that people really are not paying all that much attention to you because they are actually paying all that attention to themselves. If all you do is to smile and ask open-ended questions, then you will make a fabulous impression, one that is memorable in all the right ways because you put someone at ease, showed interest in them and acted wonderfully friendly. This works no matter what your height, appearance, weight or other characteristics may be. Who wouldn’t want to come across like that?  

For the depressed: Your dilemma is that you will fear being annoyed by all of the apparent holiday cheer and accidentally assume that it is best for everyone if you bow out of the holiday activities. You might even think that these things are pointless and stupid because your depression has difficulty noticing what is positive or difficulty estimating the real value of getting active and social. You may even be wishing you could hibernate until the entire Winter thing is over.  

Your solution is to remember that the very best way to fight depression is to get physically active, socially active and to fight the urge to believe the lopsided negative thinking of depression. You have two choices.  If you stay home and avoid holiday activities you really will have nothing to help jumpstart your mood and your awareness of what is good and pleasurable. If you get active and social, then you have the opportunity to create good experiences that make it easier to feel better, think better and have more energy.  Research shows that the more depressed people socialize and engage in activities that force them to think about what things are good, lovely and pleasant, then the better they function.  So, you might want to make it a point to watch or read The Christmas Carol, since Scrooge is he quintessential chronically depressed person who discovers that life is truly worth living when he focuses upon serving others, socializing with others and thinking about his blessings. Research on depression, shows that Scrooge was on to something.  Writing down three things each day for which you are grateful, is a fast track method for overcoming depression.  Why don’t you take a tip from Scrooge and start doing this one immediately to help improve this holiday season for yourself?

So, whoever you are, I hope that you can try some of these practical solutions to help you make the holidays more approachable, more pleasurable and more of what was intended, a time of connection with others who matter to you and time of connection with the good in mankind.

About the author:

Dr Karen Cassiday is past president of ADAA, the owner of the Anxiety Treatment Center of Greater Chicago and the host of Moms Without Worry, a radio show on, Fridays, 5pm EST that helps mothers push back against the pressure to be perfect and to raise perfect kids.

the great thing about open ended conversations is that it gives you a lot of room to find areas of discourse, making conversation less transactional.