Festive gatherings aren't always as happy as we'd like them to be—here's how to cope.

By Jenn Sinrich
December 05, 2019
family posing and taking selfie
Credit: Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

For most of us, the holiday season involves getting together with friends and family, which means these months can be a time of communion and bonding with the people we love most. At the same time, however, it can trigger and raise tensions, increase stress levels, and test our patience—depending on who's attending each event. Reconnecting with family, especially during such a busy period of the year, may bring back unpleasant memories of negative interactions, explains Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California. "Family gatherings can feel entrapping and confining, [so much so] that positive coping strategies take a back seat to emotional fragility of the past for people who have negative interactional histories with family members," she adds.

If you're hoping to spend nothing but pleasant hours with family this holiday season, here are some coping skills that should help ease any tension that might arise.

Plan ahead—and make sure others are on board.

To feel more in control of the holiday activities, have some sort of plan in place—and make sure your family members are clued in. "Predictability helps in the reduction of tension, so take the lead and shift feelings of powerlessness to feelings of being in control," advises Mendez. "Make decisions that work for you and give yourself permission to be a little selfish to decrease resentment about the added responsibilities that accompany the holiday season."

Don't overcommit.

While you may want to be part of every family event come the holidays, be careful not to exceed what's actually possible, financially or otherwise. "Overcommitting and overextending ourselves, especially during the holidays, can pull us to many different locations or celebrations and make us feel increased stress and tension," says Shelley Sommerfeldt, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships. She recommends committing to a reasonable number of events as a way to reduce any stressors you may feel on the days of.

Practice mindfulness.

Self-care is critical during periods of stress and tension, which is why Sommerfeldt suggests that anyone feeling stress or tension practice mindful meditation. "Meditating before stressful events can often help lower your stress level during the activity," she says. "You may also consider coming up with several other coping skill options that you can practice before or after attending events that may reduce stress or even plan a way to take a walk outside or slip away to an empty room to provide yourself that opportunity for a quick mental reset during the activity."

Stay away from controversial topics.

Although it's not always possible, do your best to skip conversation on controversial subjects. "Sometimes agreeing to disagree or taking a neutral stance can help contain the stress that is triggered by difficult interactions," adds Mendez. She recommends shifting away from these topics whenever possible by directly moving on to lighter topics or using humor to redirect a conversation path heading, seemingly, down the wrong road.

Remember what the holidays are about.

In the midst of stressful familial situations, it can be hard to remember that the holidays are, at their core, a joyous occasion centered around giving. "In the madness of trying to make sure every 'i' is dotted and 't' is crossed to please an unpleasable family, it's easy to lose sight of the spirit of goodwill the holidays let us cultivate," says Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist. She recommends setting aside time to volunteer, visit with people who may not have holiday visitors, shop for people who are not in your family, or simply reach out to old friends you don't see often.

 Set boundaries.

If there's one time of year not to stretch outside of your comfort zone, it's the holiday season, when your schedule and sanity are both already spread thin. "When we do not set those healthy boundaries, it can increase our feelings of obligation to others as well as our own stress and tension," says Sommerfeldt. "It is important to say 'no' when you need t, as this can help reduce the number of plans and expectancies that you may have, which can cut down on disappointments and stress."

Consider seeking professional help.

If you aren't already, consider seeking the help of a mental health specialist who can help you navigate some of the deep-rooted tension involved in family gatherings. This is especially important if spending time with family provokes grief, sadness, distressing memories, or traumatic experiences, according to Mendez: "Sometimes, the tension of family gatherings that is triggered during holiday time compromises coping resources and functional emotional regulation."


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