This post is a part of Nicole Carman’s mental health-related holiday post series, “Taking Care of your Mental Health during the Holiday Season.” To see the post line-up for the previous and remaining posts in this series, please visit this page on Nicole’s blog, Navigating Darkness. If you enjoy this post, please comment and consider sharing it on social media!
Holiday outings, gatherings and travel can all be stressful sources of anxiety and panic for individuals living with agoraphobia. There are, however, steps we can take to help mitigate the anxiety of the holiday season and increase our chances of finding joy in the festivities as this year comes to a close. With that in mind, I’m sharing some practical tips to help you cope with agoraphobia during the holidays. I hope these suggestions will help you keep the holiday spirit alive!
Set yourself up for success
During the holidays, you may find yourself being repeatedly invited in to situations that trigger your agoraphobia. The demands can be high with shopping, travelling, celebrations, religious services, outdoor activities, and more. The holidays are a time of togetherness and tradition, which can lead us to feel pressured to ensure we don’t miss out on a thing. It’s okay, and it’s healthy, to prioritize your needs during the holidays.
In advance of the holidays, formulate a plan that you are comfortable with. Make sure your schedule is manageable and that you aren’t going to exert yourself to a point of excessive distress. That might mean that you can’t do everything you would like to do or that is expected of you. Or perhaps you need to make accommodations to fit your needs. Be realistic with yourself and find a balance that will help you feel safe this holiday season. Managing your expectations ahead of time can help you feel more in control. Likewise, making realistic plans can lessen your disappointment or feelings of guilt over things you can’t participate in. The holidays are hard enough without blaming yourself for the things you can’t do.
Here are a few examples of accommodations you can make in order to minimize the toll of agoraphobia at this time of year:
- Conduct your holiday shopping online.
- Schedule breaks away from your triggers.
- Offer to host an event at home.
- Reduce your number of social engagements.
- Limit your travel.
- Plan to attend social engagements for a limited period of time.
Start exposure early
You will likely be familiar with the concept of exposure therapy. For people with agoraphobia, avoidance can create a vicious cycle. There are few things more terrifying in my life than heading in to the holidays after months of seclusion. Personally, I know that it wouldn’t be healthy for me to jump in to the hustle and bustle of the holiday season without exposing myself to similar situations and settings in advance. Nor, however, would I be satisfied with avoiding the holidays all together. Even if you are not currently trapped in a cycle of avoidance, exposing yourself to situations that mirror those you will be faced with during the holidays might be a good plan and help you feel prepared.
Think of what your plans are for this holiday season and take note of the challenges they present for you. As someone with agoraphobia I struggle to leave the house, be in crowded spaces or open spaces and spend time in the car. Ideally, this December I would like to be able to attend family gatherings at my parents’ homes, go to a Christmas market, take a small road trip to visit my in-laws, and maybe even build a snow man or two. This list is daunting, so I am beginning to prepare myself.
Let’s say you are also planning a road trip to see family in December. A good idea would be to start preparing now. How comfortable are you in a car? If you are currently comfortable spending 5 minutes in the car in your neighbourhood, that could be your starting point. Make a schedule of when you will practice your car exposure. Ideally, you will increase the time you spend in the car each time you practice. Is highway driving more frightening to you than driving in rural areas? If so, build yourself up to being on the highway in short increments. Don’t forget to use your coping tools here. If music helps you feel safer, play music in the car! If you are the passenger and using distraction is effective, bring something in the car that you can distract yourself with! Celebrate your successes and don’t despair in the times when your anxiety gets the best of you, this is hard work. While graded exposure is exhausting, with practice, the situations that provoke your anxiety may begin to feel less threatening. Hopefully by the holidays you will be able to get in the car with a higher level of comfort.
Consult with any mental health professionals you see regarding your pre-holiday exposure. Their advice may be invaluable in helping you set achievable goals and develop coping strategies to help manage your anxiety during anxiety-provoking situations.
Plan for difficult situations
Inevitably, we will find ourselves in situations that make us uneasy during the holidays. Making accommodations for ourselves and practicing exposure can help, but those measures won’t remove all potential for distress. It’s important to have a plan in place for when you become anxious or panicked. Here are a few suggestions based on how I am preparing for any difficulties that arise from my agoraphobia this holiday season:
- Address anxiety as it arises. Whenever possible, don’t allow it the chance to escalate.
- Ask someone you trust to accompany you for your anxiety-provoking plans.
- Assemble a crisis kit. My crisis kit is a collection of items that help me manage feelings of anxiety, panic and distress in order to keep me calm and limit the need to use maladaptive coping tools. A crisis kit should include items that work best for you. This might include items that engage your senses (which I have found to be a powerful distress tolerance skill), a list of your top coping tools, personal mementos that calm you, etc. When I feel my emotions spiralling out of my control, I reach for my crisis kit to find comfort, calm, and practical tools to address my distress.
- Establish a safe place where you can retreat during outings. This might be the bathroom at a restaurant, the basement at your friend’s house or an indoor space adjacent to outdoor activities. You can use this space for planned breaks or as needed. Knowing there is somewhere safe to go can make a difficult situation feel more tolerable.
- Keep anti-anxiety medications on hand. There is no shame in taking medication to help manage your anxiety. If you take an anti-anxiety medication on a ‘take-as-needed’ basis, it may be helpful to make sure your prescription is filled and you carry it with you during the holidays.
- Have someone to call if you need it. Whether this is a loved one, your mental health professional or a local crisis line – ensure that you have someone to turn to for help. You don’t have to manage the holidays alone, there are people out there who care and will want to support you.
Maintain a routine
While this is can be a significant challenge at this time of year, maintaining a routine can help you feel more comfortable, safe and calm. I suggest that you try to maintain a sleep schedule, or at least ensure you are consistently allowing yourself a full night’s sleep. Eat healthily throughout the day and maintain your exercise routine. Try not to let your hygiene routine slip either – prioritizing showering or bathing, brushing your teeth and combing your hair can all help you feel more in control. Self-care practices can (and probably should) also be a part of your routine. If you need to stray from your routine, ensure your basic needs are still being met. The anxiety and panic of agoraphobia are often exacerbated when we are tired, hungry or don’t feel like ourselves. Maintaining a routine can also help you navigate your way more smoothly through the transitions into and out of the holidays.
Be kind to yourself
I know all too well how harshly we, as people with agoraphobia, can beat ourselves up when we feel we have let ourselves or others down. This year, you may not make it to every party you’ve been invited to. You may find the holidays to be a chore rather than a celebration. You might not be able to travel with your family. You may not build a snow man. Agoraphobia is hard, harder than I can generally express. It can rob of us our most joyous celebrations and traditions, which makes it a most unwelcome guest during the holidays. Please, show yourself some compassion. I understand the frustration or disappointment you may feel in yourself, but I’m confident that you are doing your best. Fixating on your perceived mistakes will only make you feel worse, and may well make next year’s holidays feel like an even greater challenge. Be proud of the things you manage to do, celebrate any moments of joy, and dispense of the rest. It’s the season of giving, let this be your gift to yourself.
I hope that these tips and suggestions have helped you feel prepared to face challenges that come your way this holiday season. The above are recommendations based on what I have been taught by mental health professionals and strategies that have been most effective for me. This isn’t meant to be a substitute for the guidance of your trusted mental health professional. Sharing a diagnosis doesn’t erase our individuality – we will each respond best to different strategies. If something I’ve advised isn’t the right fit for you, forget it! You know yourself best. I hope you will let me know in the comments section below if this post has been helpful to you and if you would like me to share more practical suggestions like this in the future.
I send many thanks and holiday well-wishes to Nicole who organized this Holiday Post Series. I hope anyone reading will go read the contributions from the other wonderful bloggers who are participating in the series. I’m grateful to take part in this initiative alongside such fantastic writers, advocates and friends.
I’m wishing you all well and hoping your holidays are full of family, friendship, laughter and joy.