Give yourself a pat on the back. The year is drawing to a close and you’ve done your best to focus on self-improvement, minimizing stress, and keeping toxic people out of your life. But with the holidays approaching, it’s not uncommon to feel stress levels rise as you anticipate facing difficult family dynamics. Television and social media create a festive picture of the holidays, with generations gathered around the fireplace joyfully unwrapping presents. While this is a reality for some, many find the holidays to be stressful, wrought with personality conflicts and dysfunction. The social pressure to be cheerful often breeds feelings of isolation, shame, and self-blame. A single evening can leave you feeling like you’ve regressed to your fifteen-year-old self.
As tempting as it may be to avoid these feelings (we heard Fiji is nice this time of year), a little self-care and planning can make the holiday season tolerable and maybe even, dare we say it, enjoyable. Our therapists at Resilience Lab put together some great tips to help you get through the holidays without sacrificing your progress toward personal growth.
By the way, if you think you could benefit from professional guidance in navigating holiday stress but you don’t have a therapist or would like to make a change, we can match you with a therapist who can help.
Know That You Are Not Alone
Even though it may feel like it, familial tensions are not unique to you. Family dysfunction and anxiety during the holidays are extremely common. You may feel ashamed for not fitting into the prototypical holiday mold portrayed on TV and social media. Remembering that others are in the same boat might help take the edge off.
Have Realistic Expectations
Keeping your expectations in check will mentally prepare you for any drama—while you may have evolved and become healthier, your toxic relatives are most likely stuck in their old ways. Don’t expect them to behave differently this year. To help lighten your mood, try this tactic shared by one of our therapists. Make a tic-tac-toe board and write in each box an irritating behavior that you are expecting from a family member. For example, if your mom always pries about your dating life, write that in a box. Then, once she does, check it off. It’s simplistic, but game-ifying your experiences helps to make light of the situation and reminds you that you only have to deal with this annoying dynamic for a short time. Book a free consultation with a therapist to learn more techniques to reduce holiday tension.
While setting boundaries can be difficult in the heat of the moment, a little preparation can go a long way to getting through the holidays unscathed. If you’re staying at a relative’s house, having your own space and transportation sets limits on family time.
Have a schedule. The more structured your time the less likely you are to get swept up by family drama. Whatever it is—plans with friends, tickets to a show—plan it so that you’ll have personal space. Having a schedule also helps break up the time, making it more manageable.
Before your holiday get-together, make a list of distractions— activities that disrupt old, toxic dynamics as they arise. Work and a call from a friend are great examples of distractions. While phones are often discouraged at family gatherings, your phone might be a healthy distraction when you’re stressed. If you can’t break away, your distraction could be playing with your nephews or the dogs (they’re less critical of your career choices). Also create a list of calming activities—anything that soothes you such as music, meditation, or a long walk.
We recommend making a list of domains—topics of conversation that you can return to such as music or sports. So, when your mom inevitably asks if you’re dating anyone, you can pivot to the upsets of the FIFA World Cup. The key is to keep these domains light so they don’t lead to sensitive topics.
Finally, identify a “lifeline”—anyone who will be supportive and understanding—to call when you feel stressed. A therapist can make a good lifeline when you don’t want to confide in a friend. If you don’t have a therapist, book a free consultation today so that you’ll be prepared for the holidays.
Controlling your reaction
You may have heard the expression “You can’t control the waves, but you can learn to surf.” While you can’t stop people from bringing up difficult topics or engaging in toxic behavior, you can control how you react. Sometimes it’s healthiest not to react at all. One of our therapists recommends retooling guided imagery, a stress management technique that helps to cope with difficult situations. You can imagine that toxic relative as a call on your phone, and simply ignoring it. This can help minimize the effects of their behaviors.
When a relative brings up a sensitive topic, it’s perfectly acceptable to say “Let’s not get into this right now” and change the subject. If they persist after you have tactfully tried to set a boundary, just walk away. If you find yourself stuck in uncomfortable silence, understand that it is not your duty to fill it with awkward rambling. It is ok to have boundaries during the holiday, and you have the right to stay firm with them.
Know your triggers and plan how you will respond to them. Your triggers can be subtle like a specific sound or smell. Being aware of the triggers, even if you can’t avoid them, helps to lessen your reaction. Drink in moderation and avoid people who are drinking excessively. Heightened emotions and sensitivity can be a recipe for disaster in an already dysfunctional family gathering
Managing emotions and controlling your response to upsetting behaviors are learned skills and can be mastered under the guidance of a good therapist. Get matched with a therapist and book your free consultation today.
Before the family gathering, try a different take on guided imagery. Have a safe place you can go in your mind. It can be anywhere that gives you a sense of peace such as the beach or a scene from a childhood memory. When you are confronted with feelings of intense stress, find a moment for yourself, take a few deep breaths, close your eyes, and imagine you are in this safe place. Be there with all your senses—feel the ground beneath you, smell the aroma and hear the sounds—make yourself at home in your safe place. When you open your eyes you will feel more at peace and better able to manage difficult family dynamics.
Do something relaxing before the gathering such as meditating or listening to music. Meditation can help you become less attached to your thoughts so you don’t allow them to get the better of you. Going for a walk when nerves are high can improve your mood and give you a fresh perspective. If you are unable to go for a walk, try focusing on your breathing. Breathe naturally and follow your breath. Additionally, breathing exercises such as box breathing can relieve tension. Lastly, bring something that makes you smile such as a photograph of a beloved pet or a funny text from a friend.
Your attitude has the power to shape your experience. Anticipating a stressful experience will only intensify your anxiety. Shift your focus to identifying ways to mitigate your tension. Focus on the positive—list traits you like about your relatives before you see them. We tend to experience more of what we focus on, so focusing on positive attributes makes you more likely to experience them during the gathering. If someone’s behavior is upsetting and you can’t seem to escape it, remind yourself that you only have to tolerate it for a short time.
A gratitude practice comes in handy during holiday stress. You don’t have to wait for the holidays to start—in the morning when you wake up or at night before you go to sleep, write down three things you are truly grateful for. This practice softens your mind and keeps you focused on the positive.
Find a Therapist
While these tips are a great start, sometimes professional guidance is your best bet. Therapy can be very helpful in managing holiday stress and navigating challenging family dynamics. Your therapist can teach you how to set healthy boundaries, communicate effectively, and control your reactions, thus preserving your mental health. Resilience Lab matches you with a therapist that meets your needs. Book your free consultation today and you will be well-equipped to cope with holiday stress.