Holiday Gatherings: How to Reduce Family Stress

If you're worried about seeing a friend or relative this holiday season, follow these tips to reduce stress and help ease the tension.

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A happy family around the dinner table during the holiday season.

You can count on the holidays for fruitcakes that are immediately re-gifted, for endless renditions of Jingle Bells on the radio, and for time with family and friends. No matter how joyful the occasions, chances are good that some of those encounters can be challenging, whether there are personality conflicts, unresolved issues from long ago or serious problems like addiction.

And sometimes visits with family members or other acquaintances can activate every insecurity, sadness, or frustration that we hold in our hearts. However, with a little preparation and some creative techniques, these encounters don’t have to steal away the magic of the season. Here are a few ways to navigate through challenging relationships during the holidays.

1. Fasten your oxygen mask. Most of our to-do lists expand by 50 percent during the holidays: finding the perfect gift for everyone in our contact list, cards, parties, decorations. It’s no wonder we are exhausted by the first week of December. We sleep less, snack on junk food, skip our workouts – the cumulative effect making us much more sensitive and absorbing feedback through a negative lens. Airplane attendants tell us to secure our own oxygen mask before doing anything else. Before you see your estranged father or obnoxious uncle, make sure you have your mask tightly fastened. Skip the cards. Get gift certificates. Go easy on the decorations. Put your health first and you will feel more resilient going into difficult situations.

2. Know your triggers. We all have tender spots that, when hit directly or indirectly, really hurt. Identifying our triggers can protect us from some of the sting. We can try to do our best to stay out of conversations that go there (not always easy), or we can say to silently to ourselves, “I know you are insecure about this, but the truth is that you are doing just fine.” By addressing our sensitivities and accepting them – plus doling out some self-love – we are less vulnerable to the daggers that might accidentally land there in holiday encounters.

3. Say the Serenity Prayer. You don’t need to be in recovery to appreciate the power of the Serenity: “God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” Repeat this prayer over and over again before, during, and after your encounters with difficult relatives. Ask God to help to discern between actions that you can take to reconcile the relationship (remembering your relative is a fellow wounded person with his or her own painful baggage or trying to be an ounce more patient) and how to let go of, or at least be at peace with, those elements of the relationship that you can’t control.

4. Project the outcome. I know that projection is not encouraged by most psychologists. We’re supposed to focus on the present. However, I’ve always found by making a list of the hurtful behavior or comments that I expect to encounter, I’m better prepared to respond, instead of being blind-sighted by a rude remark only to stew endlessly about it when I return home. Be proactive. Outline your expectations – the guilt trips or insensitive feedback you’re pretty sure you’re going to get – and brainstorm a positive response that puts you back in control and reduces your resentment. This exercise might surface negative emotions. It’s okay. Confronting those feelings with self-love in a safe environment is healing.

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5. Assemble your calm-down kit. Everyone needs an (emergency) emotional toolkit during the holidays – techniques to calm down when you get overstimulated, angry, or stressed beyond your mind. Mine involves different deep breathing exercises like the Four Square method: you breathe in slowly to a count of four, hold the breath for a count of four, exhale slowly to a count of four, and rest for a count of four. Closing my eyes usually grounds me, too, since 80 percent of our sensory stimulation comes in through the eyes. Or try a simple hand massage: use the thumb of one hand and press around the palm of the other hand. Compile your own list of soothing exercises you can pull out when needed.

6. Find the people you need. During the holidays, we all need extra support. Surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself. Make an extra effort to call and visit friends that empower you and make you laugh. If your difficult loved one is an alcoholic, think about attending Al-Anon. Join an online forum dedicated to managing difficult relationships. Avoid the temptation to isolate and stew. Social connection builds emotional resilience, especially during the holidays.

7. Try prayer or meditation. Simply pray for the person. I do that when I’m really desperate to shed the bad feelings, and it does work. And, I know this is the last thing you want to do, but if you’re inclined to meditation, the science is in: By participating in a loving-kindness meditation — where we offer loving kindness not only to people we admire, but also to those we have difficulties with — we increase our positive emotions and release the negative ones. In the fourth stage of the meditation, you call to mind someone you're in a state of conflict with, and you wish them well.

8. Design an exit plan. You should always have an escape route in case the above techniques failed and you’re about to lose it. Have some handy excuses ready BEFORE you see your difficult relative. If you have a dog, he may need to be let out. Or maybe you forgot to turn off the oven, silly you. Or you’re feeling a pain in your side and think your appendix might be bursting. The possibilities are endless. Or you could simply leave a conversation and say you need to go to the bathroom, while you walk outside and grab some fresh air. If you feel yourself growing more and more uncomfortable, you don’t have to be a martyr and stick around. Take care of yourself, and just leave if you need to. 

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