Discover expert strategies to cope with festive season anxiety from a leading health and wellness authority

For many, the festive season is a fun-filled season of merry-making and catching up with friends and family. Celebrating another year of hard work while looking forward to the fresh start that the new year brings. For those living with mental illness, or anxiety or facing a difficult Christmas due to loss or other emotional challenges, the festive season can be the exact opposite. As we inch closer to December, the dread can start to set in.

According to Niki Saks, leading health and wellness expert and author of the bestselling book, ‘Hiding in the Open:  Living Sensitively’, living with anxiety and dread comes with its own set of challenges. You can, however, make the most of the situation by taking some practical steps to manage the onset of anxiety at this time.

“There are some incredibly effective yet simple practical things you can do to ground yourself that will help you through the difficult period ahead. I strongly urge people to prepare and practice so that when the time comes, they can actively support themselves. Mental wellness starts with you,” Saks believes.

Having been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder herself, Saks is particularly empathetic towards those who struggle with any sort of mental illness.

Saks outlines some simple tips.

S.T.O.P acute anxiety

“I like to use the acronym S.T.O.P when it comes to managing acute anxiety. This is a very easy process to follow that helps people to regain control and achieve a sense of calm,” Saks said.

S – Stop what you’re doing and pause for a moment

T – Take a breath and reconnect with the present moment

O – Observe your body’s feelings and thoughts, sensations, or emotions

P – Proceed with awareness and thought

“S.T.O.P is a mindfulness practice that encourages you to take a step back, breathe and shift your mindset from autopilot to being intentional and present in the moment,” Saks explained.

“By stopping to check in with where your mind is, including what’s happening in and around you, you can then purposefully change the direction you are going and calmly take charge of the situation.”

Managing an anxious episode

“Anxiety can develop at any time. When it does it is important to act quickly. Move to a place where you can focus on yourself for a moment,” Saks said.

“Deep belly breathing is the best way to stop and shift your focus back to the present moment. This not only implements a chain of physiological changes by slowing your heart rate and lowering your blood pressure, but mentally, it also helps you feel more in control of the situation.

“Some get-togethers are more difficult than others. But I think it’s much the reality of being human. We have complex relationships, feelings and thoughts that can get in the way of us all getting along.

“Box breathing is a technique that I like to teach. This is when you breathe in for four counts, hold it for four counts and breathe out for four counts. Then just be still for four counts. While you’re doing this, visualise a square in your mind and you’ll find it helps you stay on track.”

The 3-3-3 rule

“I seem to be all about the numbers! But this is another very practical technique that you can practice and implement discreetly, even if you’re in the midst of a festive gathering that’s going pear-shaped because everyone’s had too much to drink, or someone’s decided to have another go at a family member about something that happened 15 years ago. Things can spiral out of control quickly and it’s up to you to stop yourself from getting more anxious about the situation as soon as you possibly can,” Saks added.

“The 3-3-3 is a simple way to regain your focus: name three things you can see, three sounds you can hear, and three things you can smell.

“This is a very helpful technique to help you regain control of your thoughts and get grounded.”

Have a mantra and recite it

“If you don’t already have a mantra, here’s a bit of homework for you. Find a positive statement that is meaningful to you, that you can have on hand when you need to call upon it. If you’re at a party and you start to feel your anxiety get the better of you, having a mantra at the back of your mind can stabilise you,” Saks said.

“Close your eyes and recite your mantra, either to yourself or aloud, if you like. Another tip is to sync your mantra with your breathing, you’ll start to feel your anxiety start to dissipate.”

Disconnect and detox

“Turn off your device and let the world continue turning. Simply by disconnecting from your devices, and letting the silence set in, you can feel yourself get recentred. This is particularly important when you’re leaving a party or gathering. For your own sanity, try having a quiet night without your devices, which will allow you some distance away from the noise of the world,” Saks emphasised.

“I’d even encourage you to try and have brief breaks from social media and the news. Social media platforms notoriously contribute to anxiety due to the ‘comparison fever’, this comparison habit that has hooked so many of us and is bound to make us feel worse about ourselves.

“The festive season is a highly Instagramable season and our social media feeds get flooded with updates of all sorts of social highs that people are experiencing. From the abundant tables to the pricey luxe gifts and the expensive holidays, everyone wants to share images of their ‘so-called’ best life. Just remember that you don’t have to scroll or engage.

“Don’t fall into the trap of feeling like you’ll be out of the loop. It’ll still be there when you’re ready. You can go back online when you’re feeling stronger.”

The festive season you choose 

“It can be easy to get sucked into everything that happens during the festive season. Everyone, everywhere is always trying to go bigger and better than the previous year. Just remember that you don’t have to be part of it all. Be mindful about the festive season and choose to slow down with the box breathing technique and your mantra. Use the 3-3-3 technique to regain your focus, and you’ll find that this year’s festive season will ride itself out more peacefully and enjoyably,” Saks said.

About Niki Saks

Niki Saks is a wellness coach and accomplished entrepreneur with over four decades of experience in the fields of nutrition, fitness, and life skills. She has dedicated her career to promoting mental well-being and open dialogue around mental health challenges. Niki’s book, ‘Hiding in the Open: Living Sensitively’, is an honest exploration of her own journey with Borderline Personality Disorder, offering hope and inspiration to others facing similar challenges. Born in South Africa, Niki splits her time between the breathtaking landscapes of Cape Town and the vibrant energy of Sydney, Australia.