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Christmas is my absolute favourite time of year, and I admittedly start to get a little tingle of excitement the moment that festive displays begin popping up in shop windows.
I live in Manchester, where Christmas markets are a huge deal. Suddenly, in the twinkle of a bell, this cool, swaggering city suddenly comes over all sentimental. Sweet and decidedly non-Mancunian huts popping up amid high street stores as if flown in via reindeer from the North Pole.
For the most part, I like this snow fairy transformation and have no objection whatsoever to the scent of cookie dough and mulled wine filling the air on my way to work.
I like the electric Christmassy feel the city takes on after dark at this time of year, and feel all warmed up inside at the sight of bundled up friends laughing over hot chocolate and groaning bags of shopping.
As anyone who lives in Manchester and other such cities will know, there are some parts of the centre where the picturesque Germanic huts are clustered together in a series of rows, forming the glittering heart of the winter wonderland.
It’s in these bits where the crowds move slowly and tightly, where queues form in confusing tangles. Families grab onto each other’s coat sleeves as if wading together through an ocean of muddled fairy lights.
As previously stated, there is nothing I love more than the sudden explosion of Christmassy-ness in the weeks preceding the big day. I’m also very partial to a Yorkshire pudding wrap.
Although I get out and about plenty now – a little too much some weekends – there are times when I will need to find a toilet cubicle to hide in for a bit, or times when I will stop dead in a place I find stressful due to intrusive, panicked thoughts, clenching my fists and biting my lips until they bleed.
I’m genuinely very excited to grab a hot chocolate with Baileys and stroll about looking at fancy candles, all of course while wondering whether or not to keep the mug for my burgeoning collection. However, I know there will be times when the crush and squeeze will feel overwhelming.
I spoke with Dr Zoe Cross, a clinical psychologist at My Online Therapy, about how those with anxiety disorders can still enjoy all the fun of the Christmas markets while looking after themselves.
Dr Cross has first of all, very sensibly, advised shopping at quieter times, stating:
Christmas shopping crowds are off-putting to many of us at the best of times, but especially if you experience social anxiety. If you can find a quieter time to shop, you may find the experience less stressful and more enjoyable.
Noting that ‘health anxiety is a factor for many when it comes to shopping in a pandemic‘, Dr Cross encouraged anxious shoppers to ‘take reasonable precautions’.
Wear a face covering, practice social distancing where possible, and use hand sanitiser. The UK Government has also recently updated its guidance to recommend Christmas shoppers take lateral flow tests before mixing in crowds. This should all help to reduce your anxiety and make you feel safer.
Dr Cross also advised those experiencing anxious thoughts to ‘go at your own pace’, noting that the pandemic has involved contending ‘with a lot of uncertainty’ with many people experiencing increased levels of anxiety.
According to 2020 figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of those reporting high levels of anxiety ‘sharply elevated’ during the pandemic.
Although many of us are of course now cautiously getting out and about again, it’s totally understandable that such heightened levels of anxiety may linger. For many of us, our excitement will be tinged with an underlying residual tension.
Bearing this in mind, Dr Cross emphasised the importance of not putting too much pressure on yourself:
Though you may have been looking forward to getting back to ‘normal’ Christmas activities this year, there’s no need to feel that you have to do everything or take on more than you’re comfortable with.
If you should find yourself experiencing an anxiety attack while participating in such festive activities, Dr Cross recommends to ‘breathe in.. and out’, taking ‘long, deep breaths’.
Breathe in for five seconds, then out for seven seconds. Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to the brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a sense of ease and calm.
As someone who more or less relied on meditation to quiet my thoughts in lockdown, I can anecdotally attest that a big deep breath can be a very powerful tool indeed. And this is something you can absolutely do whether queuing for waffles or perusing the craft stalls.
Considering what else she’d tell those with anxiety at this glittering yet famously stressful time of year, Dr Cross recommended focusing ‘on your values’:
What really matters to you in life? What activities are important to you? If shopping at Christmas markets is something you value, it might be worth tolerating some anxiety to do something that brings you joy.
Addressing those who feel their anxiety is ‘spiralling out of control’, Dr Cross suggested that ‘therapy can be very helpful’:
In your session, a psychologist will help you figure out the root cause of your anxiety, identify any triggers and teach you coping skills and techniques to help diffuse and manage your worries. Remember, it’s OK to ask for help.
Merry Christmas, and do take the time to look after yourself, no matter what sort of festive activities you have planned.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone
Office for National Statistics (ONS)
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