Ah yes. The holidays are quickly approaching; another season of joy-filled days, cozy nights by the fireplace, and plenty of time with family and friends. For many though, family can be a problem. Maybe you have a grandparent who keeps bringing up various political topics, maybe you have an uncle who likes to get a little too tipsy, or you constantly get into arguments with your parents. Whatever it may be, family can be a great source of stress for many during this time of year.

This feeling of impending doom anticipated from having to spend the holidays with family members can feel very isolating for some. However, Pamela Regan, a Psychology professor at California State University, explains that feeling stressed out about seeing your family during the holidays is perfectly normal. Terri Orbuch, a relationship expert and Sociology professor at Oakland University, posits that the accumulation of stress, and how we perceive and react to stress makes or breaks our interactions with our family members. She explains that our expectations of what the holiday will be like that often causes the most distress. Many of us grew up watching holiday specials that depicted the perfect family gathering or hearing seasonal ballads on the radio that described “the most wonderful time of the year”. Over time we have developed very high expectations for the holiday season, when in fact reality is not always so perfect. Orbuch explains that our expectations are often shot down by reality, causing a sense of anxiety, stress, and disappointment.

Stress can also build around holiday get-togethers simply because of the imperfect nature of humans! It may not be possible for one person to bake 25-dozen cookies in a couple weeks; maybe you have someone in your family who is a natural instigator; your family celebrated new births this year, which means more crying babies at dinner! Real life does not look like a Hallmark movie. Humans are unique and dynamic and not everyone is going to be in a good mood or be pleasant to be around. Thankfully, there are some strategies you can implement to try to de-escalate your own stress response during this time of year:

Adjust Your Attitude

This one is tricky, but going to your grandparent’s house or your uncle’s new apartment with a more positive mindset, can make a difference. We can get caught up in expecting that something will go wrong, that we’re already miserable by the time we get together with family. “If you are already anticipating that a gathering will be stressful, your anxiety may get worse by the time the actual gathering begins,” says Thomas C. Lian, MD, a psychiatrist and behavioral health medical director with Scripps Health. Dr. Lian suggests trying to engage in behaviors that will decrease your anxiety before you gather with family. Try to read a book you really like, do a 10-minute meditation session, play a game of “I Spy” on the way to your family’s house, listen to some relaxing music. Set yourself up for success before you arrive.

Have Realistic Expectations

This relates to what was discussed earlier in this article: we have such high expectations of the holidays that it feels almost impossible for the events of the year to hold up to our expectations. It is almost as if we are dooming the holidays to fail. Do not expect people to change just because it is a time of year that is supposed to be special. Your uncle may still get a little bit too tipsy, that is okay. If you expect it to happen, you won’t be as disappointed when it occurs. If there are relatives that you really don’t believe you can get along with, no matter how hard you try, plan to have minimal contact with them.

Avoid Potentially Upsetting Topics

For the Harry Potter fans out there, this one reminds me of the scene where Aunt Marge is instigating Harry about his parents when Harry unintentionally uses his magic to literally blow her up like a human balloon. If there is a topic you know will cause some heat, don’t bring it up. The political tensions in America is extreme right now, so if you know your grandma will start to say undesirable things if you bring up politics, do not mention politics! If someone else happens to bring up an upsetting topic, try to change the subject or let them know, “I don’t feel like talking about this right now.” Of course, this is not always going to work. If somebody starts talking about something that upsets you, and they seem adamant about discussing it, remove yourself from the situation (go to the bathroom, take a look at the decorations, help someone in the kitchen, play with some of your young nieces, nephews, or cousins).

Accept the Things You Can Control

This is another tough strategy. The only thing that you can control is your reaction. You cannot control what your family may say or do, you cannot control any holiday mishaps that may occur, but you CAN control your response to them. This year, your challenge is to try using a mantra in the vein of “stuff happens”.

Don’t Drink Too Much

Alcohol is a given during the holidays, and it is okay to sit back and enjoy a couple sips of something to get into the celebratory spirit. However, avoid overindulging as this can only lead to potential lack of restraint on your part. You might not be able to control your responses to unsavory family members as well if you’ve had too much of the holiday punch. Avoid family members who may have drank too much and obviously do not let them drive (take their keys). Please stay safe!

Do Something Fun

Have everyone do an activity! Arguments are less likely to happen when everyone is distracted. Watch a holiday movie or play a game. Tell some holiday jokes, take a walk outside.

Practice Gratitude

The holidays are a great time of year to think about what you’re thankful for. Research has shown that gratitude can decrease stress, anxiety, and even symptoms of depression. Make it an activity where you have everyone in the room share some things they are grateful for this year.

Keep Breathing!

Finally, and probably one of the most important strategies to use, take deep breaths! Get that oxygen flowing to your brain and calm your sympathetic nervous system down. Facing family members who irritate us or rub us the wrong way, activates “fight or flight” responses, causing us to argue back or run away from the difficult situation. Take deep breaths to combat those fight or flight urges.

The holidays are stressful for many, but are also a great time of the year to reflect on the good things that have happened to us. Try out some of these strategies if you are worried about an interaction with your family, but keep in the back of your mind that the purpose of this time of year is to enjoy yourself, no matter what others say and do. Capital EAP wishes you a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

By: Marion R. White, MHC-LP