Holiday family get-togethers can be stressful. While many people look forward to the holiday season, there are many who dread it—whether it be because of a recent loss, family problems, or feelings of isolation.
All those old childhood wounds can get reopened, and, in some families, new issues are created. Even in families that appear to get along, unvoiced resentments from the past can linger behind a mask of normalcy.
With the holidays around the corner, you can relax and enjoy your family this holiday season with a few simple tips on how to keep your mental health in check.
Know your limits
Whether you’re hosting dinners or attending them, be realistic about what you can handle. If you start to feel stressed or overwhelmed, don’t ignore it. Try prioritizing with a list, letting others share the responsibilities, or simply declining invitations if you feel your mental health deteriorating.
Practice Responses to Triggers
You can bet that topics you hope won’t come up, in fact, will. If your cousin is still angry that you inherited your grandmother’s antique pitcher, think ahead about how you will handle it. One way is to “redirect,” which is simply the strategy of changing the topic of conversation. You can also tell your cousin you don’t wish to discuss the issue at this time and then change the subject.
If you’ve lost a loved one, the holidays can be especially tough. Acknowledge that it won’t be the same. Realize that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief, and know that it’s okay to take time to cry or express your feelings; you can’t force yourself to be happy just because of the time of year.
Prepare for Self-care
Decide how long you want to interact with difficult family members and determine your boundaries. One boundary might be for you to stay at a hotel instead of in your family member’s home so that you can have some downtime. Another might be for you to determine what topics you want to avoid.
The reality is, we only have right now. Not dwelling on the past and not worrying about the future can make your holiday celebrations a success. It can also make you a happier person in general. Focus on your needs and what is happening at this very moment and enjoy it.
Visit Those you Enjoy
Have something to look forward to. After your family celebration, schedule a get-together with friends or part of the family that brings you joy. Knowing that this event is coming up can give you that extra bump to get through time with some of the more difficult personalities. Family get-togethers are often a mixed bag of emotions. But learning to enjoy family members for whom they are while setting boundaries can make these celebrations some of your favorite times of the year.
Being distant or estranged from family and friends can result in loneliness, especially during the holiday season. Keep yourself busy with things you enjoy. Pick up a winter hobby. Join a group—support or otherwise. Volunteer and help others in need during this time of year.
Have a Lifeline
Make plans ahead of time to connect with a friend during the festivities to support each other. Hearing a friendly voice can help you sort out your feelings when you are “triggered.” And processing stress with a friend usually leads to a few therapeutic laughs.
Be Realistic about Conflict
If you’re concerned about conflict during a family gathering, the trick is to be realistic. Be prepared for some conflict. Accept the reality of who people are, and the reality that they likely won’t change their habits or opinions just because it’s the holidays. Keep conversations neutral, and pick your battles—if possible, save arguments for a later date.
Let Go of Resentments
Decide what grievances you’ll let go of for the day. Sometimes, being around family requires us to forget about past issues and simply enjoy everyone despite them. It may be worth it to not avoid your brother-in-law, whom you don’t like, if you don’t get much time during the year to enjoy your little nieces and nephews. Save the big issues for another time. If you need to confront your Aunt Suzy about something that hurt you, address it after the holiday get-together. Remember the holidays are supposed to be about love and peace. You can put the war off for another day.
Despite what some might suggest, getting in family members’ faces or using this time to argue politics and policies is not a good idea. Still, with the current political divisiveness in our country, there’s bound to be an argument or two during family holiday parties. What can you do to avoid debates or hard feelings?
The easiest answer: Avoid the topic of politics. If you are the host, tell your family that politics will not be a topic of conversation. If it comes up, respectfully remind the family member of the rule. Most political arguments are about venting, not persuading. Accept political differences as a reality of all democratic forms of government. It’s not going away. This can help you keep perspective.
Holiday stress comes in all forms, but preparation and planning can help you appreciate this time of year, avoid isolation, and learn how to take control of your emotions while enjoying what the season offers.
You’re Not the Only One
Remember, others are hurting too. You aren’t the only one feeling stress or getting triggered. It’s a part of many families’ dynamics. Be thoughtful if another family member gets upset or doesn’t live up to your expectations. Keep perspective. You just might find a little humor in some of the less serious gripes that seem to linger over the years.
Stick to a Budget
Expenses can easily get out of control during this time of year. To help with your stress levels, set a budget early on and stick to it. Avoid buying gifts with a credit card. Consider hosting a “Secret Santa” this year with friends or family to keep your spending in check.
If you are in need of assistance during the holidays, connect with your EFAP for support. There are a number of services that can assist including counselling (individual, couples, or family), as well as financial coaching, and nutrition or health coaching. We are here to help.