Coping with Christmas, An Anxious Geeks Guide

I have a love/hate relationship with Christmas, as a person who suffers with anxiety, an aversion to sensory overload and a fear of crowds it’s safe to say the holidays bring out the worst in all that, overcrowded, overbright, overnoisy, ARGH!!! I think one of the key reasons Christmas is so stressful is that it involves a big change in my routine.

One way I’ve learned to cope and get round this is to create a special kind of routine, one that comes out every year at the same time, so even when the usual routine is thrown out the window for two weeks, the ‘special routine’ can take control. It might mean always putting the Christmas decorations up the same time each year (At the start of December, always after my sister-in-law’s birthday so there is more time to become accustomed to the idea of what’s happening) and even much smaller customs such as baking nice foods on Christmas Eve, having Christmas dinner at the same time and opening presents in the same way everytime. The key is trying to make it so the madness stays somewhat the same each year.

Plan and control social events

At no other time of the year are you expected to be around and socialise with so many people in such a short period of time! Even if it’s family you see fairly regularly, for a person with ASD/anxiety this is still a strain. It’s difficult to avoid this altogether and also run the risk of offending close relatives and friends, but there is a way to keep it to a minimum. Plan all social events in advance, if any surprise ones come up you can confidently and guiltlessly say no.

Always make sure there is a day of rest between social events. It’s tempting to just get them all out of the way with together, but this is multiplying the stress and pressure that will just take longer to recover from later, especially if you have a child with ASD/anxiety who you are expecting to lug from one family party to another. You could even go as far as to say you will only go to two in a week and again guiltlessly turn down any other invitations, pick out the ones where the people you love most will be at. Don’t feel pressured to make other people happy at your expense. If there are too many people to see then politely tell them how stressful you find this time of year, then arrange to see them in January when it will be quieter.

Coping with Family and Gifts

Family is a double-edged sword, a tricky tightrope walk between social overload and social inclusion. Facing them en masse for Christmas dinner does not fill me with good tidings. It’s only in the past few years that I’ve felt able to cope with a family do at all.

Actively think about how your routine will be affected by the festive season, and try to anticipate any potential feelings of discomfort/distress. Knowing in advance why you’re feeling so unsettled (even if it’s always obvious in hindsight), goes a long way to helping you cope with it at the time.

Even if you’re not hosting the in-laws or planning a party, you will be surprised how much at Christmas can be thought out beforehand to save zig-zags in blood pressure. To provide a more in-depth example let’s take present-giving; something that I find far more stressful at Christmas than any other time because it is reciprocal. So, first plan out the details.

  • Who do you have to buy for?
  • Who will probably be buying for you?
  • What is your budget?
  • What you are going to buy?

Now I love surprises but at the same time I don’t, mostly because the need to make sure that all my gifts are either of an equal monetary or emotional value as those given to me is too great. The easiest way to ease this stress is to introduce wish lists. Ask everyone what they want. If you want to choose something then ask them for a list of different options. On the same principle you can produce a list yourself. Even if no-one asks, produce a list of things you really want and just offer it as a suggestion. Even if other people weren’t expecting it hopefully they will respect it as a way to make Christmas a little easier – after all everyone should be able to have fun.

Buy gifts early or online

Gift shopping in a busy pre-Christmas market is my personal idea of hell so I just don’t do it. If I can’t get out there early before the rush (many markets do now start from 8am on some days to help those that may be anxious/autistic, look for special days advertised locally online and in the newspaper)

The majority of my shopping I now do online from home. Sometimes the actual purchase can’t be completed online, but the research certainly can, allowing a quick in-and-out trip to the exact right shop first thing in the morning before the hoards have ascended.

Did I say Planning, planning and more planning?!

My next step to surviving the holidays is the guide to surviving parties. Christmas parties generally involve a lot of food, a bunch of being social and loud super cheerful music. So first things first: know you’re going to eat more over Christmas. It just seems to be inevitable, so plan ahead for that. Also if you know you’re going to go to a party where you might not be able to eat anything – because your entire family are on special diets – but you’re going to be super hungry because there is food everywhere… putting something in your handbag or pocket for emergencies is a seasonal must.

The other thing that stresses me out at parties is the number of people who are going to ask how life is going, what my plans for the New Year are, how my job is. Now the answer to some of those questions never changes – ‘yes it has been years’ / ‘happy Christmas to you too’ – but there are some conversations where stock phrases won’t do. This can be tough especially if your life isn’t necessarily where you want it to be or you don’t have much to talk about. The answer is simple and something I have learned over the years of trying to master the art of surviving in society. People love to talk about themselves, so bring the conversation back around to them every time you feel uncomfortable and you’re on to a winner. Even better, join a group where there are a couple of people who love to talk and happily be a background listener for as long as you can get away with it.

Also keep in mind that you’re bound to not be the only person in the room who isn’t exactly where they want to be at that point. Doesn’t mean you won’t ever be.

The Best Laid Plans

Even the best laid plans can fall apart and, with a large group of different personalities involved, it’s inevitable that some of your ideas or plans of the day will be thrown out.

At any social event I start out in the knowledge that changes will happen, that I might not like some of those changes and that, in the interests of group harmony, I will need to take a few deep breaths and roll with it.

On arrival for Christmas dinner or, if possible, before the day, I tend to seek out a spot that will take me away from group noise and busyness if/when I need it. This is not a hiding spot to skulk in all day long, but a sanctuary to recharge in as needed. In the absence of a place to be alone, think about the people you are most comfortable with and aim to generate a few one-on-one conversations with them.

Rest up

There’s no avoiding that Christmas Day is likely to be a very social, and therefore potentially draining, time. Take care of yourself in the lead-up and the come-down. I tend to spend some quality time on my own the day before and after Christmas Day – a sort of prep and recovery time. This could be a good time to schedule some time with your special interest.

Home alone at Christmas equates to time out. For people with autism, being allowed some time out this Christmas might be the greatest gift of all.

Remember Medication

Please, this is one I’m guilty of so it’s not a trite or frivolous suggestion – it’s so very easy to forget regular medication (which could be anything from vitamins to antidepressants) when your routine is disrupted; but if Christmas is likely to be stressful, it’s all the more important to make sure you have all the help you can get!

Help is available!

So my final surviving the holidays tip is this – don’t be worried about asking for help. It’s okay to not feel brilliant even if the world is covered in Christmas cheer. It is okay if it is hard or emotional. There could be a hundred reasons why. I know it is really easy to feel you have to shove a smile on your face and fake it ‘til you make it. And sometimes trying to tough it out is the right decision. But sometimes you just have to sit down and admit to yourself, or to someone you trust, that you could use some help. Or even just that you could do with being cut some slack. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else… you survive the holidays the best way you know how.

Getting it right and having the ‘perfect’ day can take years, but once you find it it’s definitely worth it. My main piece of advice is to embrace the bits you like and throw out what isn’t any good, and have a peaceful and happy Christmas.

In conclusion:

  • WishLists (and lists in general) are awesome!
  • Take time out and rest!
  • Remember your medication and self care!
  • Parties are survivable – just go in prepared!
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help!
  • Survive Christmas the best way you know how – don’t let anyone (not even me) tell you how you have to be!

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