How to Navigate Holiday Season Stress

Holidays can be chock-full of emotions. The lyrics of songs like “White Christmas” inspire expectations of all things merry and bright. But, for some folks, just thinking about the holidays can evoke anything from stress to utter dread.

One major reason? Family. For some of us, just loving our families and wanting to have peaceful holiday celebrations with them isn’t enough to make that come about. That’s especially true if there are deeper issues, ranging from a hyper-critical family member to a history of abuse in the family.

If you’re stressed out about what many consider a happy time, you’re not alone.

Holiday Season Stress pbs rewire“Given the millions of people who have grown up in dysfunctional, toxic, or abusive families, it’s very common for people to feel ambivalent, anxious, even resentful or embarrassed about family gatherings, especially during the holidays,” Lisa Ferentz, a licensed clinical social worker and author of “Finding Your Ruby Slippers: Transformative Life Lessons from the Therapist’s Couch,” said to Rewire.

“Although commercials paint pictures of loving families laughing and getting along, many people have to navigate tension, excessive drinking, parental or sibling judgements and criticism, (or) disagreements about politics or religious observance.”

Skipping stressful family events altogether can seem like the best solution. And it’s definitely a valid one. But before you decide to spend Thanksgiving eating alone and binge-watching your favorite shows on Netflix, consider these tips.

1. Focus on the positive

If you can, remind yourself of the things about your family that make you want to visit on the holidays.

“Find the common ground, even if it’s just a sliver, and stay focused on that,” Ferentz said.”Focus on family rituals and traditions, or make it a goal to create a new tradition, as that tends to bring people together. Rather than shining a spotlight on the problems or differences, focus on gratitude and the strengths that each family member brings.”

2. Set a time limit

Quality, rather than quantity, is the goal here. If you usually visit home for a weekend, try staying for an afternoon instead, Ferentz advised. Don’t be afraid to leave early if necessary.

Pick a limit that is a little less than what you think you can actually handle and stick to it. Give yourself an out by scheduling something that you won’t want to miss (such as a massage or coffee with a childhood friend) for right after you plan to leave the holiday gathering.

3. Arrange your own transportation and place to stay

It can be easy to feel cut off from the outside world when you visit your childhood home.

Holiday Season Stress pbs rewire“If possible, rent a car and stay at a nearby hotel or friend’s house to reduce the feeling of being trapped, stuck or age-regressed,” Ferentz said.

Use boundary-setting phrases when you talk to your family about your plans to stay somewhere else.

By setting boundaries around the holidays, you can promote your personal and relationship health, noted Shawn Burn, a professor of psychology at California Polytechnic State University and author of “Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Overcoming Codependence, Enabling, and Other Dysfunctional Giving.”

In an article about holiday boundaries she wrote for Psychology Today, Burn suggested preparing simple “boundary-setting” phrases. For example: “Dad, we’ve talked about this before. It’s not a lifestyle choice, it’s who I am, and I hope that one day you accept that. But let’s not ‘go there’ right now. Let’s move on to another topic so our disagreement doesn’t ruin everyone’s holiday and we can enjoy one another’s company.”

Boundary-setting phrases can be used in a variety of situations, from deciding how much of the family holiday preparation you’ll be taking on to avoiding hot-button conversations about politics, religion and more.

If the first boundary-setting phrase doesn’t put an end to the problem, she suggests following it up with a variation, such as “I appreciate how strongly you feel about X. I feel strongly about it too and I think it best we not talk about it for the sake of having a good time.”

Burn suggested in an interview with Rewire that if the first two boundary-setting phrases don’t work, you try following up with the phrase “It’s obvious that we have to agree to disagree. We aren’t going to resolve anything today and we need to move on so we don’t ruin the holiday for others.” The next step is to change the subject.

4. Keep the internal dialogue flowing

Use the power of positive self-talk to get yourself through the visit.

“It’s easier said than done, but it helps to avoid personalizing others’ ‘bad’ behavior as being about us when it’s usually about them,” Burn said. “Go into the situation armed with ‘self-statements’ to bust out if needed. These can be things like: ‘Now that I’m an adult, he can’t hurt me like that anymore,’ ‘She’s an alcoholic and says hurtful things when drunk. It’s not about me and it won’t do any good to fight with her,’ (or) ‘It doesn’t matter what they say to me, I’m here to see my brother and sister.'”

5. Buddy up

Find one or more supportive family members to stick close at these events, Burn advised. They can provide a buffer, support or an easy out if things get uncomfortable.

6. Take care of yourself

Don’t overcommit your financial or emotional resources, Burn advised.

“Many people, especially employed mothers, are already so busy and stretched energetically,” she said. “They can benefit from pruning and sharing holiday duties.”

Remember to take breaks.

“Take ‘time-outs’ during the gathering,” Ferentz advised. “Walk around the block, take a nap, journal to process thoughts and feelings, download a meditation app on your phone, read positive affirmations (or) listen to soothing music.”

7. Keep your safety–both physical and emotional–in mind

Your safety has to be the top priority here, the experts agreed. Unfortunately, sometimes staying safe means spending the holidays away from family members.

“The biggest warning sign is the palpable feeling of dread of fear that you experience when you contemplate spending time with your family,” Ferentz said.

Ask yourself “How is my mental health at this time?” Burn advised. If you’re in addiction recovery (or think you might have a substance or alcohol use disorder), you should also ask yourself “How is my sobriety?”

“How reactive are you at this time to the ‘family problem’?” she said. “Do you have a strong support system in the form of a therapist, family members, friends or a romantic partner? What is your current level of stress and need for downtime to recover during the holidays? If the holiday gathering might trigger relapse or a recurrence of an otherwise well-controlled mental health condition, or you truly need a more restorative holiday experience for your physical or mental health, then you might want to stay home.”

When you break the news to your family, keep your explanation simple and use statements that affirm the relationship, Burn advised. If you’re comfortable telling a white lie, make an excuse, like “I’m so sorry that I can’t make it this year but I wasn’t able to get the time off work,” or another reason that is difficult to argue with. Doing so could avoid arguments and hurt feelings. Add something about the aspects of the holiday you’ll miss, along with the phrase “I hope to see you soon,” she added.

If you need to avoid holiday gatherings with family this year, don’t spend them alone. Create new traditions with people you care about, the experts advised.

“We can and should define the word ‘family’ very loosely, so create your own new family system comprised of people you love and trust,” Ferentz said.

Rachel Crowell

Rachel Crowell is a Midwest-based writer exploring science and math. Rachel lives in Iowa with Delilah, a golden retriever a stranger once called “the cutest thing in America.” Outside of STEM topics, Rachel welcomes writing opportunities on everything from art to finance. Follow Rachel on Twitter at @writesRCrowell. Reach Rachel at [email protected]