Anxiety and The Fourth of July

The holidays are meant to be a time of overwhelming joy, when one can spend sacred quality time with family members and friends, some of whom one doesn’t see for years at a time. When it comes to the 4th of July, we are expected to experience even more endorphins from the rays of sunshine we soak up, the scents of burgers on the grill, and the images of red, white and blue fireworks illuminating the night sky.

For anyone with anxiety, however, the sensations and feelings that the holiday period conjures up are never that straightforward. There is a tendency to worry about and even dread things that others would never even consider and may even eagerly anticipate. Our family relationships might be complicated by previous traumas, bereavements or longstanding differences of opinions. Neighborhood barbeques may be clouded by the looming threat of social anxiety being triggered by the crowds and inevitable questions about progress in one’s career or relationships. Perhaps we are dreading the pressure of adhering to family traditions we no longer enjoy or understand the purpose of. Or, maybe you are not sure you can handle bearing the brunt of the holiday expenses for yet another year. Whatever the reasons fueling one’s anxiety about the holidays, understand that those reasons and feelings are valid and that there are strategies for coping with them.

One key to understanding how to cope with stress surrounding the 4th of July and other holidays is to understand what causes that stress. First of all, reuniting with family members, even if it’s just for one weekend at the beach, can stir up some less-than-beachy memories. According to a professor at Harvard Medical School, being back home or around people from our childhood is just as likely to elicit bad memories as it is the good ones. Memories of running around the sprinklers with your childhood friends may be accompanied by the pain of having lost one of those friends through the passage of time or something more tragic.

There is also the issue of dealing with people who are still in our lives but may actually add to our anxiety, either by not acknowledging that it exists or by making well-intended but ill-fated comments. A distant aunt, for instance, might innocently keep bringing up how she is looking forward to attending your wedding in the near future, but doesn’t understand that a wedding is the farthest thing from your mind, that you just had a painful breakup, or that your sexuality and family politics are not on the same page. The burden of having to withhold these feelings from the very people who you want to share them with can contribute not only to anxiety, but to depression as well.

Holidays like the 4th of July also have a brilliant way of uncovering what has and hasn’t changed over time in our lives. Maybe this is one’s first Independence Day without a sibling who just enlisted in the army, or the parent who usually fires up the grill is absent this year. As unsettling as these changes can be, the seeming monotony of the all-too-familiar can have a similar effect. After 15 years, your uncle’s go-to joke about accidentally blowing off your hands with fireworks may not land the same way it used to. Or perhaps those Independence Day fair one’s family always attends is  not as fun as it used to be.

It is important to understand that while we cannot always change our surroundings or whom we spend our holidays with, we can attain some level of control over the situation. For instance, in those situations where you are literally dreading another family obligation, take a moment and ask yourself if it is something you really have to do. One expert says you can make a pro-con list if only to validate that you do actually have a choice. If need be, bring your own vegan patties or turkey burgers to avoid the stress of making unhealthy choices.

Another important coping skill comes from within—it is all about attitude and outlook. Consider the worst case scenarios if you weren’t the sibling who fronted all of the holiday expenses this year. Maybe your other siblings would be annoyed, but they would understand that to have any fun that weekend, they would have to split the costs.

If you are tired of the same old same old or know that it would be too painful to be at home without a key family member there, suggest to your family to do something different that year. Maybe instead of the neighborhood barbeque, you take a weekend getaway or go to a nearby state park and spend the afternoon hiking.

It is also important to be realistic going into the holidays. There might be some family conflicts that have been a long time coming, and you cannot expect them to be resolved while you’re watching fireworks or stressing out over making sure everyone has been fed enough helpings of hotdogs. It is better to focus on enjoying the short period of respite and save the big family discussions for a less busy time.One must also pace oneself and learn to set limits. Decide ahead of time whether you will be sticking around for the family festivities for a few days or a few hours. Understanding your anxiety also means understanding how much you can handle.

Finally, and most importantly, pay attention to how your feelings fluctuate throughout the holiday period. As much as one tries to plan ahead, there are almost always occurrences one doesn’t bargain for. If you need to express your feelings or take a break from the festivities, do not feel guilty for doing so. Your health is of upmost importance. It is likely that in all of that time spent with others, you will be able to find someone who can lend a helping hand if you just remember to reach out.

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