A Therapist’s Guide To Staying Calm During Family Holidays
Even though the holidays are supposed to be fun, it’s actually incredibly common to feel stressed out — especially when your family is involved. Spend any amount of time with your parents, siblings, or cousins and you might start to wonder if it’s possible to retain a sense of calm, much less joy or cheer.
Before diving into how to cope, it helps to understand why family holidays are so stressful. According to Tina Alvarado, a licensed marriage and family therapist, it’s super easy to revert back to old roles or behaviors when you’re around relatives, which is why you might catch yourself arguing at the dinner table or stalking off to another room just like you did when you were younger.
The holidays are also often the only time of year when families gather in one place, so there’s a multitude of personalities to deal with. “What’s more, people are likely spending more time in close quarters, which means you don't get to hit the pressure release valve,” Alvarado says. In other words: “It’s typically a lot of together time where you’re expected to be on your best behavior.” Add in the stress of lofty holiday expectations, and it’s no wonder you feel on edge.
If you catch yourself gritting your teeth this holiday season, remember that feeling this kind of tension isn’t a personal failure. “The key is to try to be mindful of when your stress rises so you can take the necessary steps to care for yourself,” Alvarado says. With that in mind, here are all the best ways to stay calm during the holidays so you can enjoy time with your family — or, at the very least, get through them as smoothly as possible.
1. Take Note Of Your Emotions
If you start to feel stressed, angry, let down, or burned out during the holidays, that’s OK. It isn’t wrong to feel negative or bad. “It's just data and information coming up in your nervous system,” says Caitlin Magidson, a licensed clinical professional counselor. You can use physical symptoms of stress, like a racing heart or a flushed face, as a sign to take a deep breath or long walk, Magidson tells Bustle. Mental cues, like feelings of overwhelm or frustration, may mean you need to take a break. “Awareness allows you to accept these emotions and then take aligned action so your feelings don’t drive your behaviors,” she says.
2. Set Boundaries
If your aunt won’t stop asking when you’ll get married or your grandpa keeps making rude comments about how much food is on your plate, shut it down by setting a firm boundary. According to Magidson, you can say something simple like, “I prefer not to talk about X” or “I understand you’re curious but I’m not ready to share that.”
“Stating your boundaries doesn't mean the person will respect them, but you can set consequences if you are pushed further by saying, ‘You've asked me this several times and if you continue I'll have to leave,’” Magidson notes. It isn’t always easy to set boundaries with family, but it is the best way to handle a tough crowd.
You can also set sensory boundaries, says licensed psychologist Jan Newman, Ph.D.. If a room is too noisy or there are too many people, for instance, she recommends saying something like, “It’s really loud in here. I’m going to take my food and sit in a quieter room for a while.” It’s all about looking out for your needs.
3. Only Show Up To What You Enjoy
If possible, only commit to the parts of the holiday you look forward to — like the yearly stroll around the city to look at decorations — and skip the parts that tend to be stressful or negative, says licensed professional counselor Kelly Neupert.
A lot of holiday stress stems from feeling as if you have to do everything, oftentimes with people whose company you don’t enjoy. By letting your family know that you won’t make it to every event this year, you may be able to maintain your peace.
If you still feel obligated to show up, let the fam know ahead of time that you’re only able to stay for a few hours. “If you have a predetermined boundary, it is far more manageable to be in an uncomfortable situation because you know there is an endpoint,” says licensed psychologist David Tzall, Psy.D. Pop in, make your appearance, then bounce.
4. Know When To Leave
Don’t feel as if you have to stay at your family’s house for an entire week or at your aunt’s holiday party for five long hours. “Stay long enough to be seen by others and leave early, especially if the day is not going according to plan and you are becoming overwhelmed,” says Chartia Byrdsong-Flowers, a licensed clinical social worker. Make the holidays work on your terms, not the other way around.
5. Take Time To Cool Off
Sometimes stress takes you by surprise. Everything might be going well until — bam! — you find yourself in the middle of a dinner table debate or a parent’s meltdown. If that happens and you notice that you’re caught up in the chaos, try to hit pause.
“Being able to pause and ground yourself is one of the best tools you can use,” Neupert says. She suggests going to the bathroom to splash cold water on your face or wrists. “This is a great way to slow down your heart rate and give you some time to intentionally respond versus react.”
6. Take Deep Breaths
One easy hack? Remember you can always focus on your breath whenever things get hairy. “If you start to feel overwhelmed, take some deep breaths and try to focus on the present moment,” Wilson tells Bustle. “This will help you to clear your head and calm down.” Deep breathing is basically the simplest and quickest way to chill out, and it’s backed by science.
7. Change The Topic
Another way to prevent upsetting convos? Mastering the art of changing the topic. “If you know that your family has a tendency to talk about certain topics that can be emotionally sensitive, come up with something else you want to talk about,” Neupert suggests. “Brainstorm some options beforehand.”
8. State Your Needs
Find yourself doing all the planning? Buying all the groceries or gifts? Or standing in the kitchen alone amongst piles of dirty dishes? If you’re totally overwhelmed, remember to speak up.
“It's OK to be clear and direct about what you need,” says psychotherapist Kate O’Brien. If you need a break or some help, say so. And if you need to say no, go for it. “Sometimes you may feel like you need to sacrifice the entirety of yourself for your family,” O’Brien tells Bustle. “Ultimately, you’ll feel better if you take care of yourself along the way.”
9. Bring A Plus-One
If you have a friend or partner who’s free during the holidays, ask if they’d be willing to come along as a guest — and as a buffer. “Bringing a partner or friend may help, as it relieves some of the burden off of you,” Tzall says. Many families stay on their best behavior in front of guests, so their presence might encourage everyone to lighten up.
10. Stick With Your Allies
Another option is to stay close to the allies in your family. “You might have a sibling, cousin, or grandparent whose company you find comforting amidst the stress,” says Heather Wilson, a licensed clinical social worker and executive director of Epiphany Wellness. “Try to stay by their side instead of interacting with the people whose company you don't enjoy.”
You can also turn to these people to vent your frustrations, she says. If your stress levels rise, grab them and steal away for a walk or a few breaths of fresh air.
11. Be Strategic In How You Help
If you’re feeling stressed or overstimulated, offer to help with tasks that allow you to zone out or get some time away, suggests therapist Tina Alvarado. “For example, offer to peel potatoes for the mashed potatoes — its repetitive, task-oriented, and likely away from the action — or offer to pick up a forgotten ingredient from the store,” she tells Bustle. Not only will it offer you a moment away, but you’ll also get bonus points for helping — it’s a win-win.
12. Resist Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
Even though you might feel like slugging back an entire bottle of wine, try not to lean into drinking as a way to drown out your family’s noise. According to Wilson, this is a super common tactic, but one that often backfires. “It might just further aggravate the situation,” she says, so think about talking to a friend, going for a walk, or watching Home Alone in another room instead.
13. Focus On Being Nice
At some point, you might realize that you’ll never see eye to eye with your sibling — and that’s OK. When that happens, Antwi says to try and avoid spending your holidays trying to win arguments, and just be nice instead. “This will help keep things calmer when tensions rise between people who have different opinions or beliefs than yours,” she tells Bustle. Smile, respond with bland statements, and revel in the fact you’ll be back in your own home soon.
14. Sit Back & Observe
If all else fails, you can always sit back and observe what’s going on. “When you learn to observe rather than engage, it can transform everything,” says clinical hypnotherapist Steph McGee. If you aren’t in the mood to run the show, craft a perfect dinner convo, or single-handedly reform your grandma’s outdated views, simply get comfy and watch. It isn’t easy, but it might feel better to go about your traditions and tasks and enjoy yourself as much as possible without letting anyone rile you up.
15. Get Some Sleep
It’s also important to take care of yourself physically. McGee recommends getting plenty of sleep in the days leading up to, during, and after the holidays. Not only will quality rest help prevent crankiness and burnout, but it’ll also help you better process what’s going on.
“Rapid eye movement sleep (REM) is a normal phase of the sleep cycle in which we dream, process the stresses of the day, and re-align our reliance levels,” she says. It’ll all feel so much more manageable if you catch some zzz’s, so consider taking a melatonin gummy or listening to a guided sleep meditation before hitting the hay.
16. Don’t Force It
Another way to cope with holiday stress is by accepting you can’t do everything even if you try, says Tony Mosier, a therapist and co-founder of Choose Mental Health. Instead of striving to complete as many traditions as possible, pick a few good ones and let go of the rest. Mosier notes that special holiday moments often happen when you aren’t trying, after all, so be present and try to enjoy the chaos.
17. Remember That You’re Not Alone
Even though it might feel like yours is the only family on Earth who goes off the deep end during the holidays, it may help to remember that that’s definitely not true. “[Almost] everyone feels this way at times during the holiday season,” says Akos Antwi, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner and co-owner of Revive Therapeutic Services. “It's just part of the territory.”
Zaccaro, A. (2017). How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353
Tina Alvarado, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist
Caitlin Magidson, NCC, LCPC, licensed clinical professional counselor
Dr. Jan Newman, Ph.D., licensed psychologist
Kelly Neupert, LPC, licensed professional counselor
David Tzall, PsyD, licensed psychologist
Kate O’Brien, LCAT, MT-BC, psychotherapist
Heather Wilson, LCSW, LCADC, CCTP, licensed clinical social worker, executive director of Epiphany Wellness
Steph McGee, clinical hypnotherapist
Tony Mosier, MFT, therapist, co-founder of Choose Mental Health
Chartia Byrdsong-Flowers, LCSW, CADC II, licensed clinical social worker
Akos Antwi, APRN, PMHNP, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, co-owner of Revive Therapeutic Services