Families, Holidays, and Stress

For many people, visiting family during the rush of the holiday season can be a nice break from the norm. If you are like me, I enjoy seeing family whenever possible. However, not everyone has the same experience. It is usually around this time of the year that many of my clients begin to speak about their own issues related to traveling, spending time with family, and whether or not they enjoy the holiday spirit. After all, this is the “season of giving” and that usually involves spending time with loved ones.

That is not to say that being around family for an extended period of time isn’t stressful. For some, the family can be the ultimate source of stress and frustration. Many individuals find themselves feeling overly irritated, short-tempered, or anxious (or all of the above) at the thought of spending time with family during this holiday season. This then brings people to the inevitable question: what can I do about it? How do I manage this? Am I crazy for thinking this way?

Below are just three examples of some strategies that I often share with my clients (and use myself) when I am faced with these questions or the stress of visiting family during the holiday season.

It’s okay to say “no” sometimes.

This is one that my clients often have trouble with. In many families, there is an underlying assumption that family comes first. For some, this will always be true. My challenge to this assumption is that it is hard to put others first, even family, when you can’t seem to listen to what your body and mind are telling you. Sometimes, it is okay to say no to people or to events that you know are going to be overly stressful for you. Like that holiday party at your job or that birthday party for your niece at a jump house. Many people often forget to listen to what their body and mind are telling them. And sometimes, that means having to say no.

Know what your boundaries are.

This one is aligned with the previous entry: listening to yourself can be very insightful. Very often, our families elicit a strong emotional response that is often accompanied by a desire to please or conform to others’ wishes. That means sometimes “biting off more than you can chew.” That is why I often work with my clients to establish boundaries; what are you okay with? What are you not okay with?

If you know you feel nothing but irritation when you go to your Uncle Larry’s house because everyone over-indulges in the egg nog: good! That means you know something about yourself. Being able to identify and understand what your boundaries are can lead to formulating a plan that will help you mitigate these stressful issues in the future.

Try to stay grounded and present.

So you are at a family holiday party and you find yourself wanting to escape. Very often, escape and avoidance are not possible. This is where grounding techniques can be extremely helpful. These techniques are type of coping strategy that aim to “ground you” or bring you back to the present moment. These techniques vary depending on the symptoms, but usually have some foundational similarities across them.

Grounding techniques include keeping your feet planted firmly on the floor, practicing mindful breathing techniques, taking a short walk, and being acutely aware of your senses. These techniques are often used by therapists to bring the client back to the “here and now” and assist them in understanding that they have control over their perceived out of control emotions.

Practicing these techniques before, during, or after visiting with family will help you manage your emotions/stress, keep you “present” with your family, and give you further insight into how you react in these particular circumstances.

Kevin Johnson, PsyDKevin Johnson, PsyD (’18) is a Core Faculty member at MSP.