What I Wish My Family Knew About My Anxiety During the Holidays

I hate the holidays. When this comes up in conversation, people usually laugh incredulously and I laugh with them while thinking, "No, but I really do." It's a fact that my family is well aware of and one I know hurts my mom to hear. The thing is, the real reason the holidays make my stomach do flip-flops in the months leading up to November and December is way bigger than the basic holiday "stress." During this season, my anxiety often takes on a life of its own, and fun festivities become the main source of my distress.

Sometimes I come off as angry, standoffish, sullen, and ungrateful. Other times, I feel like I'm an actor playing a role even in front of people I'm closest to just so that I seem the way I'm "supposed" to. It's hard to explain my actions and the motivations behind them to my family (especially the ones I barely understand myself), because they haven't struggled with this type of anxiety. There are a few things I want them to know this holiday season about my anxiety and how it can and will affect our interactions. Even if friends and family can't necessarily relate, it's still comfort enough for people with anxiety to see that they are at least trying to understand.

I don't hate coming to see you — I just panic over the planning it takes to get there.

Not everyone is lucky enough to live close to their loved ones. An entire country separates me from my family, and so many other people have miles to travel each holiday season. I get frustrated over the phone when we're planning things because I worry about how much it will cost, my work schedule, what to do with my pet, whether my partner can come with me, how long I can stay, if I'm staying long enough, what I should bring, if I'm spending enough time with each person, and so, so much more. For people who don't deal with anxiety, planning a trip over the holidays can sometimes be as simple as booking a flight or hopping in a car and going.

But those who struggle with anxiety go through every bad scenario in their heads and envision potential problems before they even arise (and usually they never do). I shut down about holiday plans because I get overwhelmed, but never because I don't want to see my family. I get angry at myself and at my anxiety for overcomplicating things when objectively I know they should be so simple, but that isn't a reflection of my lack of desire for the end result, which is spending time with people I care about. It's the hurdles to get there that I dread.

Getting out of a routine makes me feel unbalanced.

There are many things that amplify anxiety, and getting out of a routine is one of them. Part of what makes anxiety worse around the holidays, in addition to the time being overwhelming, is that it can shake up an anxious person's day-to-day so much that they end up feeling unbalanced and out of sorts. Don't get me wrong, changing things up can be a good thing, but for a person who is prone to panic attacks and extreme anxiety, feeling out of control — even if it's about something small — can trigger those anxious feelings.

Sometimes my anxiety can come off as anger.

If I'm snapping about wrapping gifts wrong or complaining about something seemingly trivial, it's most likely misplaced feelings that stem from anxiety. While I can sometimes come off as angry, know that the anger (probably) isn't directed at you, but rather at the broader situation. It's not your fault, and you didn't do anything wrong — unless we got on the subject of politics, and we all know that's one better left alone around the holidays . . .

I'm grateful for the things you do, even if I don't show it in the way you hope for.

The trouble you go to when you decorate the house to make it look like a Christmas card never ceases to amaze me. I know you pull out boxes and boxes of wreaths, lights, ornaments, and funny snowmen because you want to make us smile like we did when we were kids. I love that you do this, and I appreciate it so much — but your expectation of my reaction can unintentionally put pressure on me. What if I say the wrong thing and hurt your feelings? What if you do all this and it doesn't live up to what you hope it'd be?

I know that so much goes into organizing activities for an entire family full of people. I recognize that you are juggling multiple schedules, immediate family, extended family, in-laws, and more. Please remember that while you're looking at my exterior mannerisms, inside there's so much going on that sometimes it's hard to put it into the words I want to say. But know that I see all you do and I'm so grateful for it, even if I don't say it the right way (or at all).

Being around people constantly can be exhausting.

This is true for everyone, even those who don't deal with anxiety! No one can do everything, but sometimes I try — and that can make me burn out. Constantly being "on" when I'm used to being able to retreat when I need to can shake up my stability and send my anxiety spiraling. Letting people who deal with anxiety have their space and alone time — and most importantly, doing this without making them feel guilty — can make a huge difference in ways you may not even realize.

The preparation and expectation can be a lot for me.

Everyone's expected to be happy, easy-going, and loving during the holidays. I think that's a great notion! But sometimes, I'd rather feel what I'm feeling and not experience guilt over this. Emotions run notoriously high throughout the season, and that's understandable. Still, it can be extremely stressful to worry that what I'm doing is not living up to the expectation of the holiday or that how I'm acting might be interpreted incorrectly. The last thing I want to do is hurt anyone's feelings or upset them, but I also have to do what's right for my feelings as well.

I may need to be alone, so please respect that.

Sometimes I'll retreat into myself. I may leave a gathering early or take a breather outside. Don't take it personally! This is a way for people with anxiety to regroup and center themselves, so please try to understand that it's not about you — it's just something we need to do.

Your patience, love, and understanding is the best gift I could get!

Anxiety is something we live with 24/7, so no matter how far we're traveling over the holiday season, our anxiety is hitching a ride in our suitcases. The best gift you can give me is patience and understanding. While it's totally understandable for you to feel frustrated with me when I do something that confuses you, your frustration can make my anxiety even worse. Communication is key! The holidays are supposed to be a wonderful time of the year, and for the most part, they are. Know that I do my best to overcome my anxieties so that I can enjoy them with you wholeheartedly.