How To Navigate Holiday Anxiety With Your Spouse
The jam-packed schedules, presents, parties, and resolutions of the Christmas and New Year season can leave us all a little out of whack. But what do you do when your spouse is struggling to cope with anxiety or expectations around the holidays?
Start With Compassion
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines compassion as a “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Compassion helps you look at the big picture—you seek to both put yourself in your spouse’s shoes and desire to work as a team with them to make the situation easier or better.
Starting with compassion does not mean giving up all the twinkling lights and parties or making your world revolve around the needs of your spouse. It means taking time to share and listen. It implies a willingness to compromise and opens the door to creating new versions of old traditions. Compassion lets you focus on solving problems from a place of love and respect.
Some years are just hard. If your spouse is mourning the loss of a loved one or has suffered an illness or injury, they may not feel ready to celebrate or look forward to what a new year will bring. Gently look for a balance between providing space for them to heal and guarding against isolation which can intensify grief.
Likewise, if your spouse has a history of anxiety or depression, seasonal activities, Hallmark movies, and the often dreary winter weather can throw any balance and connection that may be present out the window. Being excessively tired, having mood swings, canceling plans at the last minute, or being withdrawn are all signals that something may be amiss. If you’re picking up on these signs yourself, don’t wait to contact your doctor or therapist if things seem to be spiraling, and if you’re noticing these tendencies in your spouse, gently encourage them to seek the help they need.
Check Your Calendar
The bevy of options and activities during this season can easily overwhelm anyone. If you suspect your spouse’s anxiety stems from a calendar that is packed to the brim, open a conversation to get more details. Though it’s tempting to jump directly into problem solving, taking the time to gather more information sets the stage for you to work together toward a solution that supports you both. Here are some questions to get you started.
- What items on our calendar look like fun?
- Is there anything about the upcoming holidays you’re dreading? Can you tell me more about that?
- What Christmas and New Year’s traditions bring you joy?
- If you could lose one obligation with no guilt, what would you choose?
Gaining a clearer picture of the issues and events that bring the greatest joy or distress should make it easier to make a plan that can work for both of you. You may be surprised to find you both agree and can easily prioritize your schedule! If not, lovingly share your own feelings and look for a compromise. Is there a way to tailor the events or expectations? Or perhaps you could agree to enjoy one or two with your spouse and do the other things with friends or on your own.
Make Realistic Party Plans
When a stressful situation is something that would be difficult to skip, creating a team game plan can be invaluable. The goal is to make the situation more manageable by setting boundaries as a couple and practicing exit strategies that will ease tensions and anxiety.
- Set a time limit. Agree to go for an hour. If you’re both having fun, you can always reassess and stay longer. Otherwise, enjoy the hour, and then, say your goodbyes.
- Agree to avoid hot topics. If your family dinner conversations tend to turn atomic, make the decision in advance that you won’t engage. The truth is, you don’t have to prove your point, change their mind, or come to an agreement. So when chit chat turns toxic, excuse yourself from the conversation to get water, create a quiet side conversation about the food or centerpieces, or gently but firmly redirect the topic.
- Be present. Sometimes a smile across the room or a gentle squeeze of a hand can make a room full of people seem much more manageable. Make an effort to subtly check in with your spouse and encourage them to reach out to you if the small talk becomes too taxing. In a season of gifts and giving, choosing to be present with your spouse can be the greatest gift you can give.
Take a Walk
Is there any problem walking won’t fix? Evidence from the scientific and mental health communities both agree walking is the fastest, easiest way to gain perspective and help your body help itself. Extensive studies have shown that even very short, consistent periods of exercise can potentially be as effective as antidepressant medications. Bonus points if you take a walk in sunlight. The boost of vitamin D is good for your overall health and may help regulate your circadian rhythm giving you deeper, more effective sleep.
Change the Focus
Volunteering may feel like the last thing your spouse has the energy to do, but acts of service not only help the community, they also help us reframe the perceptions of our own lives. Consider inviting an elderly friend to lunch after church, working at a local food bank, or volunteering to be an after-school tutor at a community center. Focusing on others can help provide a sense of purpose and value while they act as a reminder to look for the good. It’s almost impossible to help someone else and not end up finding reasons to be grateful for your own life.
Once the plan is in place, do your best to enjoy the season. Embrace the solutions that will work for this year and commit to working on the deeper issues so you can find ways to make things more manageable in the future.
No matter what approach you take, the gift of supporting your spouse with anxiety they’re experiencing around the holidays will be the best present they receive all year.