How to Manage the Anxiety of Holiday Gatherings

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, many people are feeling anxious about family gatherings. This year, it’s not just dealing with Uncle Joe’s casual racism, encountering siblings with whom grudges linger, or worrying about serving a dry turkey. We’re at a place in the pandemic where we are gathering more, but COVID and the fear of COVID are still very much alive and well. In fact, a recent survey found that 75% of families plan to not have extended family over for the holidays. Our anxiety is especially peaked when dealing with unvaccinated relatives.

One remarkable antidote to anxiety is compassion. It’s hard for your brain to be anxious and kind simultaneously, so by purposefully directing your thoughts and feelings towards kindness, you short-circuit the fear brain’s dialogue and thus feel less anxious.

Here’s a simple breath-based practice to spark compassion. 

Start by noticing your breath as it flows in and out. Try to feel the sensations of the breath as it passes through your nostrils. 

Next, focus on the feeling of the in-breath. Allow each in-breath to be for you. The breath delivers oxygen to your cells, which is essential for their function. So, you are being physically nourished. But also add a feeling of emotional nurturance. Think about a quality that would support you in this moment: strength, health, sanity, calm, whatever calls to you. And, with each breath in, add a little mantra, “May I feel calm” or “May I feel more grounded.” Continue for a least a minute, but longer if you are feeling especially anxious.

Then, switch your attention to notice your exhales, feeling the flow of air out your nose. Bring to mind someone to whom you’d like to send some well-wishes. It could be someone whose company you enjoy or someone you’re worried about being with, like the racist uncle or the judgmental in-laws. Think of what quality would serve them at this time, and create a mantra to accompany your exhales, “May you feel peaceful” or “May you be healthy.” “May you keep your comments to yourself.” (Oh wait, not that last one 😉). With each out-breath, send compassion.

As you breathe, you’ll notice your mind jumping back to un-compassionate thoughts, especially if you’ve selected a difficult person as a recipient. This happens. It’s okay. When you notice your fear brain taking over, just acknowledge it and shift back to the breath and the compassion mantra.

One good thing about this practice is that you can do it anytime you start to feel those holiday jitters, and it will always steer you back to feeling more comfortable in your own skin and appreciative of the opportunities you have to be with your loved ones…even those who are a bit of a handful. 

Happy Thanksgiving!  I appreciate you!

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