Breathing through anxiety

We all know how Christmas can be stressful. After the festive period, many of us feel like we need another holiday to recuperate! This problem can be amplified for those with pre-existing anxiety conditions. I would like to offer my thoughts and suggestions to help alleviate the anxiety and stress that occurs because of the festive period.


What are some of the stresses at Christmas?

When compared to other times of the year, I would say that Christmas has no rival in terms of expectations around meeting the needs of others by offering our time, money, and personal space in a way that we do not normally have to. The expectations place many of us outside our comfort zones.

The situation can elicit fun, excitement and joy for many. However, there can be mixed emotions of social anxiety, stress, and high expectations for others. For some, the trade-off is not a fair sacrifice.

What causes the stresses?

How we enjoy our holidays can vary wildly. It is influenced by numerous factors including things like religious beliefs[1] and socioeconomic status (most obviously for those with limited financial resources who cannot easily meet the cost of Christmas).

The latter example is a curious stressor, given that studies have shown that the happiness derived from the material aspects of Christmas is limited. An example of the negative effects of a capitalist society, no doubt.

What can we do about the stresses?

One thing that is vitally important is to reflect upon and identify those things which, in previous years in the lead up to Christmas, have caused you anxiety. This may involve considering challenging emotions and memories which relate to a range of childhood experiences.

For others, it could relate to challenges relating to their current family, friends, and relationships with spouses or partners. This may be in terms of the unmet expectations we have in relation to these people or vice versa. For many, the Christmas period can elicit feelings of grief at the loss of a loved one [2].

My own feeling about holidays is a useful example. I realised, in the last few years, that I get stressed at the prospect of a holiday. I started noticing unexplained stress and agitation in the lead up to any holiday. After reflecting, I realised this is a result of my experience of holidays with my family, as a child and teenager. Holidays were not bad but there was an unsettling emotional charge that has stayed with me. 

When thinking about Christmas, it is worth asking yourself what you feel about things like spending time with family and friends, organising and hosting social events, the financial and practical elements of having people stay in your home or staying in other people’s homes.

Does this sort of thing give rise to feelings of obligation and duty? The list is very long for what can come up for people around the holiday period. Emotions can be heightened and the expectations we have of ourselves and of others are often higher than usual.

Once you have reflected on areas of challenge for you over the month of December, write down the ways you cope. Include in your list the things you do for effective self-care. Detail things that you feel are currently exacerbating your anxieties so that you can try to avoid them. Obvious examples include spending too much money, drinking more than usual, and overeating.

What can help to combat stress?

Now let’s look at some more things we can do to address these challenges.


'Yawn!' I hear you say! I’m being flippant but I imagine this is going to be some people’s response. We have all experienced an upsurge in mental health awareness from sources online, on social media and popular culture which has included the use of the term mindfulness. But what is mindfulness and how does it work?

The basic idea behind mindfulness is about learning techniques that teach you about living in the present or the 'here and now' rather than dwelling on past thoughts. This is not to say that these thoughts will never occur. However, by practising mindfulness, we can recognise that the thoughts and feelings are not immediate threats, facts, or truths that we must live by, but are instead thoughts in our heads.

By adopting this approach, we can allow thoughts to naturally come and go rather than trying to control them. We all change over time. We do not need to let past thoughts and feelings define us.

Mindfulness allows us to find a calm acceptance of how things really are instead of how we wish they were.

I am going to create a separate article and resource about this soon.

Breathing exercises

In the meantime, breathing exercises are a useful technique. There is a blog on my website where I have created a quick reference guide that will take you through some of these breathing techniques, step by step. However, if the resource I have prepared is not to your taste (which I hope is not the case!) there are numerous other resources out there.

The box breath is a simple stress management technique. It is quite famously used by US Navy Seals. The box breath is a basic technique where you breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for a further four seconds, then breathe out for four seconds more, and then finally you hold again for four seconds.

There is also a range of other online resources which teach multiple breathing techniques, including videos on YouTube. There are so many different breathing exercises that I would recommend. Try one for a week or so to get a sense of how helpful it is for you. If it works great, if not, you can try another.

If anxiety is an ongoing issue (regardless of the time of year), then the maintenance of any positive coping strategies that may already be in use is vital. However, Christmas brings a vast range of stressors. Therefore, we can all benefit from trying new techniques.

References and endnotes:

  1. Muslims, who elect not to celebrate Christmas on religious grounds, are unlikely to experience anxiety in the lead up to Christmas. However, there are religious holidays in their own culture such as Eid which may elicit similar stressors to Christmas.
  2. This may include “Disenfranchised Grief” which refers to a type of grief “that {people} experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported.” Doka, K. (1989). “Disenfranchised grief & Recognizing hidden sorrow”. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books. P.5

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Dundee, Angus, DD2 1RW
Written by Claire Robertson, MBACP, MSc, PG(Dip), BA(HONS)
Dundee, Angus, DD2 1RW

Claire Robertson is a Counsellor registered with the BACP. She holds a Master of Science in Counselling with a distinction. Claire is the founder of Heartwork Services a company offering evidence-based counselling in Dundee and throughout the UK. She invites you to look at her profile.

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