How to Manage Social Anxiety and Pressure When Discussing COVID-19 Holiday Plans

By Lauren Presutti

You are staring at that unanswered text. That missed call notification. The voicemail from your extended relative who believes the pandemic is a hoax. Your anxiety surges and you agonize over how to communicate your decision to skip social events this holiday season. You want to own your decisions, but the social pressure is crushing your gut. Why can’t everybody get on the same page? Why do we have so much awkward disagreement? Why is this so hard? Your mind races and you can’t help but wish the COVID-19 holidays would just be over.

If this feels familiar, you are not alone. Many people all around the world are struggling with the social pressure of discussing holiday plans this year. Anxiety is overwhelming us and most are wondering how to manage these social strains. When people are bound to disagree on holiday plans this year due to the COVID-19 changes, it can be helpful to rely on coping skills. The following are some ways you might manage social anxiety and pressure when faced with holiday planning disagreements.

First, manage family expectations and remember that disagreements are okay.

You may want to have an early conversation about how everyone is feeling and avoid arguments by giving everyone a chance to voice their opinion. Remember it is OKAY if people have conflicting ideas and feelings about how to approach the holidays. Try to accept that people will have different expectations than you. Remember that everybody is doing their best and we are all struggling in different ways. We are all trying to make the best decisions that we can. Sometimes people have different types of information that influences their decisions – so talk openly about the risk factors that you are considering, what is motivating you to make your decisions, and talk about your beliefs and values that are influencing your thought process.

Consider the role you play in your family and how it may be changed this year.

Families are made up of different people who all play different roles. No matter what your family is like, you play a role in the family dynamics. Are you the person that always hosts a big holiday dinner? Are you the one that coordinates a secret Santa gift exchange? Are you the person that figures out where to buy the Christmas tree? Do you initiate family plans for Hanukkah or Kwanzaa traditions? Or do you traditionally take a passive approach during the holidays and let other family members be in charge of activities?

Whatever your role is, consider how it may be changed this year. For example, if you’re the person that traditionally hosts a big holiday dinner and you decide not to do that this year, it will be important to have honest conversations with your family members about why you made that decision. Or, if you typically take a passive approach during the holidays but you worry that approach might lead you to feeling extra lonely this year, maybe you want to be a leader this year and organize some virtual holiday celebrations. When deciding what role you want to play, consider your time and energy, feelings of motivation, safety precautions, and how your decisions may influence your ability to cope with stress this year.

Weigh your concerns against other responsibilities and prioritize what matters.

If you have a family member with a weak immune system, that should be placed at a higher priority over your responsibility to host a family holiday gathering. If you have a child with asthma, protecting your child’s health should be more important than going to a crowded community event. Sometimes we feel responsible or obligated to do certain things around the holidays, but this year I want you to remember that you are not responsible or obligated to do anything that makes you feel unsafe.

Set boundaries and don’t let others negatively influence you.

Even regardless of COVID-19, the holiday season brings more demands on us – our time, our finances, our emotions – and we have to think about how we are going to spend those resources to maximize our experience. Boundaries are the invisible dividing lines of what is and is not okay. We can have social boundaries, meaning we limit the interaction we have with other people, we can have financial boundaries, meaning we set a budget for ourselves, and we can have emotional boundaries, meaning we only engage in things to a certain point and then we step out of those experiences when we start to feel emotionally agitated. Setting boundaries helps us maintain our limits for what we feel capable of handling.

This is especially important during the holiday season because of all the extra demands that we feel this time of year. Unfortunately, sticking to our boundaries can be challenging when other people are influencing us and peer pressuring us to extend more time and energy than what we feel we can handle. I want to remind you to practice sticking to your boundaries and don’t let other people influence you in these ways. Remember that you have to do what feels right to you. This holiday season, try to focus on the real meaning of the holidays – whatever it means to you. It might be gratitude, spiritual traditions, togetherness, giving back to the community in some way – or anything else. Focusing on how you find the holidays meaningful might help protect you during this time of increased personal demands.

Practice assertive communication to express what you need.

In general, expressing your needs and desires is essential for living a balanced and fulfilled life. During this holiday season, take time to check in with yourself regularly. If you feel stressed or out of balance, there is probably an unmet need. It’s important to identify what that need is and figure out how you can ask for it from the people around you. For example, if you feel like you’ve had a too much virtual media lately, practice assertive communication by letting your family know you’re going to take a technology break because you need to give yourself some space, and don’t worry about what their reactions are. Or, if you’ve been feeling extra lonely and miss your loved ones, try communicating to explain you’re feeling left out and express your need for more communication on a regular basis, such as setting up a weekly virtual chat. Or, maybe you feel like you’re receiving a lot of criticism from a friend who’s trying to help you with your decisions but you feel like you’re just getting a lot of backlash – express what you need by explaining that you’re getting too many opinions from others right now and you need a little more support and respect for what your own decisions are.

As you have these conversations, be aware of your energy, ask yourself if you’re being influenced by other people’s expectations for you, or if you feel like you can genuinely express what you need to feel more balanced this holiday season.

Trust your instincts (if something doesn’t feel right about a situation, it probably isn’t).

Your instincts reflect your immediate response to something. When you feel something immediately in your gut, there is no need to analyze it or rely on external advice. This holiday season, there are a lot of critical decisions that we have to make because of COVID-19, so it can be helpful to put aside external opinions and instead listen to the advice of your own intuition. If somebody doesn’t feel right about a situation, it probably isn’t. Listen to your gut.

Remember saying no doesn’t mean that you are being rude, selfish, or unkind.

Respectfully declining something, saying no, and honoring your limits is not selfish. It is an act of love towards yourself. A lot of times people say yes and give into an obligation because we fear that we might make another person upset and we find ourselves wanting to please others. But this can lead to feelings of burnout because we are not taking care of ourselves if we are constantly giving in to other people. Remember that it’s okay if others are disappointed if you say no to something. Disappointment in life is unavoidable, and we can’t live our lives always trying to please everybody around us. It’s okay for us to disappoint others sometimes when we have to prioritize our own needs. This COVID-19 holiday season may actually be the best time of the year for you to practice this habit of saying no to things that you don’t feel comfortable doing.

Get away from the pressure zone and remove yourself from the stress.

Another way to manage social pressure this holiday season is to get away from the pressure zone. Try to remove yourself from the stress. This might mean that you have to limit your conversations with others if they continue to pressure you into decisions that you don’t feel comfortable with. Remember that you have the power to remove yourself from social pressure by simply exiting the conversation whenever you’re starting to feel like it’s too much.

Let go of the need to explain (you don’t owe anyone an explanation).

It can be helpful to identify why you feel you need people to understand. Ask yourself why it’s important for other people to understand your decisions. Do you find yourself needing to have other people approve your decisions? We all have different reasons for wanting to be understood. For a lot of people, the one big reason is because we want approval and validation. People often crave the sense that others don’t blame us and that others fully accept our thoughts or opinions. The problem with this habit is that it takes the freedom and trust away from yourself. When you’re constantly looking for other people to approve and understand your decisions, like how you’re going to spend the holiday season this year, you’re doubting your own ability to trust yourself. So instead of feeling pressured by other people, allow yourself to trust your own decisions and remind yourself that it is okay for other people to not understand how you plan to spend the holidays. There can be a lot of personal freedom and peace in knowing that you’re doing what’s right for you even if it conflicts with what other people are doing.

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