The holidays offer plenty of reasons to be stressed out and anxious… the gifts you haven’t bought yet, the wrapping to be done, the pile of cookies, the cards to be mailed, the office parties. But for many, the biggest source of holiday stress is family… the family dinner, the obligations, and the burden of family traditions.
“There is an idea that holiday gatherings with family are supposed to be joyful and stress free,” says Dr. Ken Duckworth, MD, medical director, National Centre for Mental Health. “That’s not always the case. Family relationships are complicated. But that doesn’t mean that the solution is to skip the holidays entirely.”
With holiday family reunions looming in your calendar, what are some of the ways that you can prepare yourself and cope better this season? I have found some helpful tips on coping with challenging family events.
1. Make a Plan!
“The most reliable way to predict the future is to create it.” – Abraham Lincoln
It is wise to start strategizing before the doorbell rings about where you will sit, what conversations you will have, how you will respond to sensitive issues, and the boring questions you will ask to fill the uncomfortable voids. Plan for a timeout (in your SIL’s bathroom if necessary) to take some deep breaths and re-focus. Consider strategizing an exit plan as well should things get too overwhelming or a “I-am-about-to-lose-it-in-a-big-way” point comes up. Visualizations can also help or role-playing with a friend/coach on how you will navigate through particularly difficult interactions.
2. Carry Your Strength!
“I’ll be there with a love that’s strong. I’ll be your strength. I’ll keep holding on.” – Jackson 5, I’ll Be There
Remember you don’t walk alone. You carry with you the love, support and kindness from the people that really matter in your life. Carry them with you. Carry their laughter and joy into the daunting conversation with Aunt Betty about why you still have not met “The One” yet. Carry all the support when your sister and her husband show up with their perfect lives and perfect family with their “perfect” perfect. Remember how loved you are when you are sitting at dinner with your loving family and the turkey is a little dry. You can cope with holiday stress because you ARE strong!
3. Wait Before Speaking!
“Be sure to taste your words before you spit them out.” – Unknown
If everyone waited two seconds before emitting toxic emotions into the environment, we might have world peace. But seriously, knee jerk reactions or not thinking before we speak lead to more unwanted conflict, remorse and regret over things said and increased stress.
In the pause between thinking and speaking, your neurons have a chance to make the leap from the fear center of the brain, which processes stimuli, to the more sophisticated evolved part of the brain. This can change our comment (without pause), “You are an idiot and you have just confirmed it” to a comment (with a pause) of “thank you for caring enough to share.”
4. Allow Time to Recover!
“A smile sometimes does not mean that you are happy. Sometimes it just means that you’re strong.” – Zayn Malik
After all the planning, visualising, borrowing strength from others and taking a deep breath before responding to the annoying request to sing “Jingle Bells” like you used to when you were nine years old – you may still come away from your family gathering feeling tired, bruised, battered and drained! That is normal! Therefore, allow yourself time after the dinner or gathering to recoup. Focus on self-care. Pour yourself a hot bath. Take in Boxing Day shopping! Rest and replenish with a well-deserved pat on the back for surviving another holiday family gathering.