Health / Expert Advice

How to Stay Positive When Family Stress Hits

Deep breaths. You got this.

’Tis the season to gather everyone near-and-dear to you. But while, yes, you love your loved ones, you may not always like them. This makes spending a long weekend or week at home tricky and, at times, overwhelming. This sense of dread or anxiety is common, according to licensed psychologist Sarah Schewitz, Psy.D. She says that, while most families get together during the holidays, they typically don’t live in close proximity. This creates a reunion aspect that isn’t easy to manage and may be full of family stress. When you add on the layers of driving or flying, unrealistic expectations on gift giving, and sometimes-conflicting political beliefs—a merry time can feel less than festive. Maintaining a positive attitude can be difficult. However, with some strategies recommended by psychologists, you can find the peace you need to get through.

Remove “should” from your vocabulary.

As you think about visiting your hometown for the holiday season, Schewitz recommends doing an audit of the language you use when planning. Do you think you should spend a day with your grandma, even though she pressures you about getting married? Or do you guilt yourself for not spending more time with your brother, even though you can barely find one topic you agree on?

Schewitz challenges “should-ers” to omit this word. Instead, use practices in cognitive behavioral therapy to reassign thoughts to these circumstances. “If your family starts fighting or things get stressful, imagine that you are an archaeologist studying a foreign species. Approach the situation with wonder and interest rather than anger. If you have no expectations of how someone should act, you can allow yourself to become unattached to the outcome,” she explains. “You will feel more entertained and curious when interacting with difficult family members, rather than feeling stressed or frustrated.”

Stay in a hotel, or keep your visit shorter.

You know your parents’ couch is always open. And your sister-in-law has a spare bedroom. But if you struggle with spending time under the same roof as your family members, budget for the privacy to de-stress. Book a hotel room or an Airbnb. Relationship therapist Courtney Geter, L.M.F.T., C.S.T., says although you may feel a pang of remorse when you break it to your mom that you and your partner won’t be in the room next door, you’ll be much happier when you do gather with your relatives by putting space between what usually heightens your angst.

Identify your triggers.

Before you board your flight or load the car, psychotherapist Sarah Mandel, R.N., L.C.S.W., suggests taking alone time to dig deep and address your triggers. “Notice what makes you uneasy when around your family. Be mindful about how you want to manage your feelings, your thoughts, and your responses,” she explains. Once you know your potential triggers, you can develop a strategy to deal with your reactions in an effective, calm manner. “Slow down your thoughts and notice what areas of your body feel tense. Being aware of what you contribute to an interaction with a family member can help shift the way you respond to others and reduce the stress of family interactions,” she explains.

Need an idea of what could alleviate your racing heart or pounding head? Mandel recommends the tried-and-true practice of counting to ten before you say something you may regret later. “Remember to step back from the situation. Consider the bigger picture of the gathering and the holiday. Again, remember to utilize those healthy self-care stress techniques,” she adds.

Allow yourself to grieve.

Not everyone has family drama that makes the holidays stressful. But the very presence of a Christmas tree or menorah could bring up difficult memories. Geter says many people feel intense sadness and dread during what’s supposed to be the happiest time of year. This is often because they’re missing a loved one who recently passed. “During family gatherings, you may feel the void of that loved one. Or, you may pick up on the emotions of other people in the room,” she says. “The holidays also show many images of intact families, which could lead to [unpleasant] thoughts of what you or your family lost … or about your upcoming holiday or family time.”

Geter urges people to remember that you can’t rush or ignore grief even if it’s painful. Instead, allow yourself to feel it. Come up with a way to handle these feelings, as they will inevitably arise. One tactic is to talk about the loved one in a special way, removing the so-called elephant in the room. “Consider creating a family tradition to honor and remember your passed loved ones. If a loss is recent, know it is acceptable to change your typical family plans to allow yourself to grieve,” Geter says. She doesn’t recommend isolating yourself from your support system. However, choosing to visit for dinner and then going back home or creating a small, intimate family dinner are healthy options.

Be frank about your limitations.

At their core, the holidays are meant to be a time when loved ones gather together and express their affection and gratitude for one another. But oftentimes, it feels like a contest to see who can give the best of the best. This is why Geter says many people experience financial stress. They pressure themselves to go above and beyond their budget. If you’re feeling tighter on the purse strings or your wallet this year, it’s perfectly acceptable to wrap up your sentiments differently.

“Gifts are not the only way to show love and appreciation. Explore if there are other ways you can show love, whether it’s finding time for a potluck dinner or lunch or asking an older family member if you can do a chore around their home,” Geter suggests. “If gifts are an important way for you to show love and appreciation, consider homemade gifts. Or, gifts on a smaller scale with a note about your love and appreciation for this person.”

Set—and stick to—boundaries.

Much like being real about your financial limitations, it’s also essential to set healthy boundaries in relationships that cause you discomfort. Mandel says that creating these healthy interpersonal lines can help you avoid getting engaged in emotionally charged situations. “Do your best to avoid enabling patterns that serve dysfunctional and stressful family dynamics by defining your boundaries, maintaining your composure, and respecting the boundaries of others,” she explains. “Healthy boundaries also include maintaining self-care, emotionally and physically. As tough as it might be during the rush of the holiday season, make sure that you schedule down time, gym time—even just short bursts can help you cope with the stress that will inevitably occur.”

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