When thinking about the holidays, itâ€™s easy to envision a scenario like this: people getting ready for a family gathering, preparing the gifts, dressing the kids, getting everyone in the car, knocking on a door, having Grandma answer it and give everyone a hug and kiss, and having everyone go inside to see all the other family members to celebrate the holiday. This picture perfect scenario is not a reality for many people, particularly for those with anxiety and/or depression.
My father lived with manic depression and anxiety. Family gatherings were not his favourite. When we would go to family gatherings, there were a lot of relatives and only a few of them knew about my fatherâ€™s manic depression. Back in the 70â€™s, 80â€™s and 90â€™s, not a lot was known about mental health, so there was a lack of understanding. My father would become anxious about going to these gatherings and we never knew what he would do or say, or if anyone would comment on his behaviour. Sometimes my family members would say something that would end up hurting my fatherâ€™s feelings and we would leave the family gathering early. They would bring something up from the past and it would grow into a huge ball of anxiety, frustration, anger, embarrassment, and humility. After awhile, we stopped going to family gatherings all together, as there would always be someone who didnâ€™t want my father there because of something that had happened in the past.
Family gatherings are meant to be fun, memorable, and an opportunity to get closer to one another. When a loved one lives with anxiety and/or depression, it can become a very stressful event. Things are said and done that cause anxiety and eventually the feeling of being trapped occurs, which can result in a panic attack.
When a loved one has anxiety and/or depression, the anticipation of the event can sometimes be worse than actually attending the event. Your loved one may ruminate about all of the possible outcomes and consequences days, even weeks, before the event. Sometimes the preparation of the event can be stressful as well. If itâ€™s Christmas, gifts have to be ready, if you have pets, they have to be taken care of before leaving, if there are children, they have to get ready. All this preparation has to be done within a certain timeframe and can cause the anxiety to heighten.
You may not always be able to control your relativeâ€™s actions towards your loved one during a family gathering, but you can help reduce the anxiety that they may feel by:
1. Finding an ally. If there is a relative who is positive and comforting, go with your loved one and begin a conversation.
2. Set limits. You cannot control what someone else says or does, but you can help your loved one come to terms with the fact that itâ€™s okay to speak up for oneself and to know when itâ€™s time to walk away.
3. Bring a distraction. At times your loved one may start to feel overwhelmed. You can help by bringing some comforting items that they enjoy in order act as a distraction from all the chaos, such as an IPod, a book, or board games.
4. Focus on the good. Â During the anxiety-provoking situation, you can help your loved one by getting them to focus on the good. There is always something positive that can be found that can be a calming distraction. You can suggest things like talking to a relative who has a positive, understanding energy, reading stories to the children, or assisting with the meal. Doing something positive will calm your mind and reduce the anxiety/depression.
Understanding what is happening and having a plan to make it through a family gathering can increase your loved oneâ€™s sense of control and ultimately decrease their anxiety.
By: Anita Levesque
Anita is a mental health advocate with lived experience through loved ones;Â father – bipolar; brother – PTSD, depression, anxiety; mother – PTSD;Â boyfriend – clinical depression, severe OCD, GAD, personalityÂ disorders. Her goal is to focus on personal experiencesÂ with mental illness.