Category: Wellbeing

Tips to Managing Stress and Anxiety Over the Holiday Season

By Hudi Kowalsky, LMHC

For many people, the Holiday season comes with mixed emotions.

Some of the pro’s include crisp winter mornings, holiday cheer, great retail sales, and festive spirit all around.

But the holidays can also create considerable tension, stress, and anxiety. First, holidays often come with a break from routine which can be disruptive and complicated to navigate. And for those who need to travel things can be even more complicated, and expensive. Second, there is family stress. While spending time with loved ones can be a great blessing, complicated dynamics often play out especially during the holiday season. And for some individuals spending time with family members can trigger unwanted memories, as well as habits which no longer serve us well. Third, is the vice of social comparison: Looking at images all over of other “happy” people can leave many wondering why they are feeling so sad, anxious, and alone. And for those who don’t have families to share the holidays with, such feelings can be even more compounded. It’s very easy to look around and see what others appear to have and be quick to judge ourselves harshly and curse our fate.

What are some tools that we can utilize to have a happy and NOT anxious holiday season? How can we maintain a sense of equilibrium and peace from late November through the start of January? To rephrase that question in the language of clinical science: What are the most effective ways to manage our emotions and increased vulnerability to anxiety during this season?

Here are our seven favorite ideas:

  • Keep up a healthy and regular routine as possible. If you need to travel or attend a family gathering or holiday party, try not to wake up or go to bed more than 60-90 minutes later than usual. The body has its own rhythm that needs to be maintained.
  • When you need a break from work, really take a break and let things wait until you’re back at work.
  • Keep up your fitness and try to stick to your regular diet/calorie intake as much as possible. If you miss a workout or overeat a bit here and there, just try to get back on track.
  • A drink here or there with friends and family is usually fine, unless your doctor has told you otherwise. But if you’re feeling sad or anxious be sure to go easy and not overdo it. Drowning away sorrows tends to bring them back with a vengeance down the road.
  • When you’re spending time with family that you care about, turn off your cell phone for at least part of the time together. When we’re not distracted by our phones a new world of curiosity and possibilities in relationships opens up.
  • If you’re in therapy, ask your therapist if you can contact him/her while you’re away as needed during the holiday season when things come up. And if you’re taking medication, make sure you have an adequate supply so you’re not running to a random pharmacy for a refill mid-Thanksgiving meal.
  • If you’re not in therapy, make sure you have a close friend you can call or lean on if things get tough. Sometimes, there is no greater medicine than having a shoulder to cry on.

Happy Holidays (seriously)!

Test and Exam Anxiety

By Mark Staum, LCSW

The months of October and November bring new weather patterns, new daylight schedules and new challenges for children. Exams, projects, and papers are back in full swing. Some children may experience some level of anxiety, in preparation for an exam or during an exam. Test Anxiety is a form of anxiety that can be anticipatory and/or performance related. In anticipatory test anxiety, a child may be anxious about the preparation necessary for an exam. When performance related, a child may experience anxiety during the exam itself.

Research shows that test anxiety is related strongly to time management and preparation. Even the most prepared/organized child may have some normal ‘jitters’ on the day of a big exam. However, generally speaking, children who prepare, plan ahead and studies for exams tend to feel more capable of handling any stressors that may arise on the day of the exam. By contrast, children who attempt to cram the night before tend to be more anxious. With that said, some children who study and know their material very well still get very anxious. Also, children with anticipatory exam anxiety may push off studying because doing so makes them think about their exams, which is unpleasant and anxiety-inducing, and as a result, they are less prepared, which begets even more anxiety.

To help children manage test and exam anxiety, teachers and parents should pay careful attention to children’s behaviors. Let’s look at three examples:

  1. A child tells you that before a Math exam, her body became ‘frozen’ and it felt like she was confused and disoriented.
  2. A child says that he reviewed the material for his History test an extra five times because he felt nervous that he really didn’t know the material well.
  3. A child mentions that before her most recent Science exam, she was so nervous that she could not study, and then during the exam, she felt very tired and had difficulty concentrating.

In all these cases, adults can assist children in navigating through these discomforts. In example #1, the child can take a practice test in advance of the exam, and then use breathing, relaxation, and light muscle exercises to relax the body directly prior to and during the exam. In example #2, we can help the child to recognize why it is that he is concerned about not doing well, and to be more accepting that sometimes we try our best and still don’t achieve what we want. In example #3, we can reinforce good study habits, especially when the child prepares for her test despite her anticipatory anxiety.

In all of these cases, feeling of anxiety can be worked through to build resilience and growth in your child. The above are sample strategies and professional assistance may be necessary. Typically, test and exam anxiety is highly treatable with evidence-based psychotherapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and children can see benefits within just four to six weeks.

Staying Cool in Summer Heat

By Yoni Sobin, PsyD

In the winter, we face an increased risk of flu and seasonal depression, so we stay vigilant for contagions, stay warm, and keep engaged in activities with others (see my previous article on loneliness – http://www.centerforanxiety.org/2016/12/20/loneliest-time-year/). We typically overlook seasonal risks in the summer, but here are two concerns to be mindful of as the temperatures rise:

Dehydration

Almost everyone knows the value of protecting our skin against the sun, but protection against dehydration is equally important and often neglected. During the summer, the average adult loses over two liters of water daily through sweat (we have over two million sweat glands!) and other bodily functions. And this can impact our mental health – dehydration is associated with mood lability, poor concentration, depression, and anxiety.

A key strategy to combatting dehydration is using mindfulness to observe our body sensations and noticing early signs when we are running low on water. Low-grade headaches or muscle cramps, fatigue, lightheadedness, difficulty concentrating, and reduced urination or darker/yellower urine are some indications.

Behaviorally speaking, drink eight to ten glasses of water daily throughout the summer to facilitate an optimally focused and healthy mind. Eating foods like cucumber and watermelon are also excellent ways to stay hydrated. Sports drinks help restore electrolytes and body salts such as sodium and potassium. And if you’re exercising outdoors, drink at least 6 ounces of additional fluids each 30-minutes, and try to schedule activities in the mornings or afternoons when it is cooler outside. For beachcombers, while catching the sea breeze is a great way to cool down, remember to bring at least two liters of water per person since the sun’s reflection on the water surface significantly increases dehydration risk and ultraviolet ray exposure.

Lethargy

While seasonal depression tends to decrease during warmer months, many individuals still experience depressive episodes in the summer. One reason is that is easy to stay indoors and watch television or read a book in an air-conditioned room, and by contrast, the most effective tools for staving off depression are remaining active and maintaining interpersonal connections.

If you’re feeling blue during the days of sun, try to attend events or concerts outdoors. Go to a beach or find a water-based activity. Attend or even host a barbeque. Take a weekend vacation getaway with a friend or on your own. Google “free things near me today” and do one or two things that pop up. Try one new activity each week. Spend time in nature (while remaining hydrated, of course) and give yourself time to decompress your mind. Whatever you do, engage with your activities mindfully. Take note of sounds, sights, smells, sensations, and tastes.

If the weather is too hot to comfortably enjoy the outdoors and you find yourself binge-watching the West Wing or Big Bang Theory while sitting on the sofa, be sure to take at least a 10-minute break after each episode to walk around the block or call a friend. Research shows that sedentary activities increase depression risk, and punctuating the day with active blocks can make a big difference.

On the whole: While summer is a great time to relax, it’s important to remain mindful and never relax attitudes towards protecting our physical and mental health!