Tips to Avoid Holiday Stress
The holidays are a time for reconnecting with family and friends and sharing our love and gratitude with them. However, for many of us, family members can trigger unresolved childhood wounds, bringing up feelings of self-doubt, unworthiness and unlovability.
The myth of the holidays also forces upon us a tremendous amount of pressure to connect and have the perfect “Hallmark” family reunion. For many people, this is just not possible; yet the pressure is overwhelming and creates unrealistic expectations.
Besides, have you seen a Hallmark movie lately? They’re incredibly sweet, over-the-top and take place in tiny towns that only exist in the imagination of overly romantic writers. That type of holiday does not exist anywhere for anyone, no matter how hard one tries. So, let’s just drop that vision all together and shoot for something closer to National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation.”
In all seriousness, if we are a member of the LGBT community, the holidays and family gatherings can be particularly painful, especially if we feel isolated and surrounded by unaffirming, straight family members and feel we need to be in the closet to some degree.
Straight or gay, it is critical to balance our time with our “chosen” family of friends, who are totally accepting and supportive of who we are.
To help my clients have a more fulfilling and happy time (or at least neutral), as they interact with their families over the holidays, I offer these tips:
TIPS FOR MENTAL WELLNESS DURING THE HOLIDAYS:
Most of these things can be done in as little as 20 seconds, 2 minutes or 20 minutes. So prepare yourself for these time-outs ahead of time, so you can be more comfortable in knowing you have a way to deal with any frustrations that may come your way.
Set an Intention to Be Calm and Happy & Have Some Fun!
Take control of your life. Set an intention to stay calm and happy – or at least feeling neutral. Next, ask yourself, “What can I look forward to?” Whether it’s the scenic drive there or grandma’s pumpkin pie…. nothing is too small. Take an empowered approach, if you can’t think of anything to look forward to. You need to organize some things to anticipate and make your own fun! Plan a skating party, followed by hot chocolate, Chinese dinner, and movies on Christmas day, a Secret Santa for your friends, or a holiday singles party. You’re only limited by your imagination, so have fun with it.
Visualize Yourself Being Calm & Happy
In many family settings, this is much easier said than done. Grandma is asking when you’re going to settle down with a nice girl, your nieces and nephews are running around screaming like little banshees, and your dad is about to throw the remote through the television, because the referee made another bad call. But it is extremely important to try some visualizations.
Visualize yourself interacting with your family and being calm. Imagine any annoying comments going in one ear and gently floating out the other, without any emotional reactions from you.
Now, imagine a cone around your body that prevents stress from entering. If you can, remember any past times that were pleasant with your family members and breathe into that memory. Don’t just think of reducing stress or anxiety (which I call “Deadman goals”). Instead, think about what you would like to replace your stress with.
Is it going for a walk with your mother? Taking your father out for ice cream? Having a board game night with your whole family? Enjoying a meal out? And no, standing up and screaming, “Food fight!” while you toss a turkey leg into Aunt Lola’s lap doesn’t count. But if that visualization helps to calm you, do what it takes.
Enlist a Partner or Friend for Support
Let someone know you might need to lean on them during your visit home (it’s the holidays, they may need you too). Plan some check-ins (therapists call this emotional regulation) or make sure you have someone on call to vent to, or to tell you how great you are and how crazy your family is, or to just be supportive in general.
If your partner will be with you, agree on a code word that means you need a time out to go for a walk, do a fool’s errand or take a nap. “I think we need more Cool Whip” usually fits in to any holiday gathering.
Set Boundaries & Manage Expectations Before You Visit
Let your family know there are certain topics that are off the table for discussion before your visit. You can say this in a nice, but assertive way. For instance:
“Mom, I am really looking forward to visiting for Thanksgiving. So I can really enjoy my time with you, I would appreciate it if we did not talk about….”
Or, “Dad, you know I love you. But since we don’t agree on politics, let's agree not to discuss them.”
Or, “Mom, I need you to be really supportive, could you ask Grandma to not bring up…."
Let your family members know in advance that your intention is to really enjoy them and your time together. However, if it looks like things might get heated, give yourself permission to take a time out. All you have to say is “I am concerned this is a topic that upsets me. I need to take a break.” You can change the subject, go for a walk or take a nap. And again, needing more Cool Whip always works!
Ways to Respond to Triggering Comments – Deflect, Use Humor, Walk Away
Well-intentioned comments from family members usually come from genuine concern for our well-being and future. But they can be triggering, often bringing up sad memories, childhood wounds and sending us into sadness, depression, and rage. The idea is for you to feel empowered and in control, as well as being armed and ready with something to say. Try practicing these responses before you are with your family and imagine a positive outcome:
“You know I love you…so let’s agree to disagree and talk about something else.”
“I don’t want to discuss this now. Let’s focus on the delicious meal on the table." (TV show…more pleasant topics…. lack of Cool Whip)
“I think we have already gone over this, and it’s not going to change. Let’s talk about...”
(Please resist the urge to point out Great Uncle George’s 22-year-old girlfriend)
“This feels hurtful. I know you don’t mean it that way, so let’s talk about something else…”
“Have you heard... (enter amusing story or joke)?”
If your family member continues, smile, walk away or get more Cool Whip.
Be Compassionate & Understanding
Yes, this is a difficult one too, but try to put yourself in your family members’ shoes. They usually want the best for you but don’t always know how to communicate that. Maybe they are older and fearful they won’t be around to enjoy you or having grandchildren. Perhaps they never received the love they needed in the past. In most cases, I believe people are doing the best they can and fighting their own demons.
Keep Family Visits Brief & Take Breaks
If you have a history of having unpleasant holidays with your family, I suggest keeping your visit brief. Even if you have to fly for hours to get home, combine your trip home with seeing some friends, going to a museum or to see a movie. If your partner is with you, give them a tour of where you grew up and hung out. And remember, if, at any time during your brief visit with family, you feel yourself getting activated, get out and take a break.
Get Out and Go for A Walk
Get outside. Moving your legs and arms stimulates both sides of your brain, which helps you to relax. If you are near a park or walking trail take advantage of it. Nature is healing and therapeutic. Enjoy nature as much as possible. Focus on the little things: leaves, flowers, smells, warm sunshine…. breathe in the crisp air.
Tapping in Your Peaceful/Calm Place
Tapping in, or bilateral stimulation, can have an enormous impact on lowering stress, anxiety, and keeping you calm. Take a minute to imagine your peaceful/calm place. Is it a beach? A lookout on a favorite trail? Your childhood treehouse?
Imagine yourself there... What are the smells? What is the temperature? Is there a light breeze? A tang of ocean air? Feel your body on the sand of the beach or dirt of the trail beneath your feet. Really try to thicken the sensations. Now breathe into those sensations, as you relax.
Next, start tapping for a good 20 seconds. Using your hands placed on your knees, shoulders, your forehead—or even by using your feet (whatever feels best to you)—begin tapping back and forth, right then left. This can be at any speed and weight that feels good to you. Take another moment to feel the calm.
The tapping causes bilateral stimulation in the brain and helps to anchor (tap) in the relaxed feelings. If you prefer, you can also tap in a wise, protective, or nurturing figure to help you throughout your day. These places and figures can be real or imagined. Try this exercise as often as needed. For more information, read (or listen to on Audible) Tapping In, by Laurel Parnell.
Try the 4-7-8 breathing technique: inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds. Try this for a few minutes. Deep breathing gets us back into our bodies and out of our heads, which helps us relax. Download and try the app Breathe for a custom-tailored approach to breathing, a 5-minute yoga workout, or some stretches.
Affirmations can increase our self-confidence and lower our anxiety and stress by making your subconscious believe you are relaxed. Try one of these:
“I am relaxed and calm”
“I love myself and feel an inner strength”
“I am capable, competent and confident”
"I am doing my best and my best is good enough.”
Louis Hay has hundreds of inspiring affirmations. Find the ones that speak to you and use them.
Meditate or Nap
Take a 5-minute break a few times a day or a mid-day break to meditate or even nap. There are a plethora of instructive meditation apps, so you don’t have to worry if you are meditating the wrong way. I recommend Insight Timer and Head Space, which have thousands of guided meditations, from 2 minutes to 2 hours long.
Even a 2-minute meditation can lower your cortisol levels (the stress hormone), helping you destress and relax. If you feel interrupted by thoughts while you are meditating, don’t worry – just acknowledge the thoughts and let them pass.
Find A (Neutral) Way to Connect to Family
Ask yourself, what are some of the ways you might be able to connect that are enjoyable or neutral and won’t be triggering? Is it going to the movies? Watching TV? Baking together? Watching sports? Practice having some positive connections, however brief.
...for all of the good things in your life. Instead of ruminating on how challenging your mom is, try to keep your perspective. Don’t allow yourself to engage in "black and white thinking” – my life is all good or all bad. Remember to be grateful for the little and big things in your life that give you joy and meaning: your daily cup of jo, sunshine, your spouse, your kids, money in the bank, food in the refrigerator, your pet, etc. When you feel yourself enjoying something, try to hold that thought and feeling for 15 seconds. This will rewire your brain to amplify your happiness neurons, so you will feel good more often.
Exercise, Sleep, Nutrition & Emotional Connections – The 4 Pillars
We all know that regular exercise—walking, yoga, running, lifting weights—adequate sleep on a regular basis, and good nutrition all contribute to optimal mental health – so don’t neglect any of these. Exercise helps to expel stress and releases endorphins that create good feelings and help us to sleep better at night.
As humans, we all crave social connections. So, make sure you are being emotionally nourished on a regular basis by friends, family and pets. When we are emotionally nourished and regulated, everyday challenges bother us less. If you are lacking in this area, set a goal to make more friends or call your friends and family weekly for support. Remember, support is a two-way street, so make sure you are being supportive of others as well. Again, this will only strengthen your emotional bonds – providing safety, security and the love that you might be missing.
Organize Some Fun Things for Yourself
What would be fun for you? An ice-skating party and hot cocoa? Caroling? Snowshoeing or sledding? How about adopting a family for Christmas or arranging a gift drive for a homeless center with your friends? The holidays are a wonderful time to reconnect with your inner child’s spirit and playfulness. Take an empowered approach and organize plenty of activities that you will look forward to and enjoy. If you can, go away for a weekend, take a staycation or vacation.
Accept Things for the Way They Are
Maybe you aren’t going to have a heartwarming Thanksgiving or Christmas with loving family members. Remember, those Hallmark holidays aren’t reality. While this can be upsetting, it might be better to grieve your losses and look for other people to enjoy and connect with. Consider a Friendsgiving or spending time with your best friends. Go on an adventure and explore a city you’ve never seen. Move forward and create your own holiday traditions.
Sometimes we need the help of a mental health professional. Reaching out is admirable and a self-honoring decision. Therapy is an excellent place to explore limiting beliefs, relationship and behavioral patterns that might be contributing to your stress and, anxiety. It's like having a conversation about where you are, where you’d like to be and how you can get there with the help of a professional.
Feel free to call me at 917-922-2650 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to know more about how I can help you.
Have a wonderful, empowered holiday season!