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Yes, Holidays With Family Can Be Stressful — Here’s How To Keep Your Cool

By Karen Tietjen
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Sweaty palms. Rapid heartbeat. Shallow breathing. This may sound like a response to giving a career-changing work presentation, but it's also what happens when you spend the holidays with family. To be fair, this time of year is about spending time with loved ones, but for some, the get-togethers aren't always merry and bright.

While you may have fantasized about jet-setting to a faraway land this winter, your obligations may be sending you back home to your relatives instead of on an exotic vacation.

If too much togetherness with your family sets your nerves into a tailspin, you're certainly not alone. But what is it about going back home that tends to cause unnecessary anxiety? "Most people find the holidays stressful," explains Connie Yip, a psychiatric nurse practitioner based in New York City. "Whenever we go home, we tend to revert back to our past roles in our families." Throw in the chaos that comes with food-making and present-buying, and you might be in for a disaster.

They say to hope for the best but prepare for the worst, and this season, make sure you're prepared better than ever before. Ahead, find practical advice, tips, and techniques to practice when tensions rise, straight from psychiatric experts who specialize in anxiety.

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Eliminate As Many Stressors As Possible

If the thought of seeing your relatives already has you on edge, Dr. Christina Brooks, a licensed psychologist specializing in the treatment of anxiety and OCD across the lifespan, says the first step is to accept and let go. "Relax, breathe, ground yourself," Dr. Brooks says. "Whatever is going to happen when you get home is going to happen. So much of that is out of your control. However, how you approach the situation is completely under your control."

Then, before you head home for the holidays, do yourself a favor and eliminate any factors that may compound the stress. "For example, maybe you’re a light sleeper and staying with your family means a bad night’s sleep on the couch; consider staying with a friend, instead," Yip suggests. "If cooking is stressful for you, plan on buying dessert or a side dish at a local store instead of making it yourself and traveling with it." And if you're in for a multi-day stay? "If you need some time to yourself, build in a walk or a jog or offer to run an errand."

Prioritize And Practice Moderation

After years of heading home to Virginia for the holidays, Lindsey*, who lives in Los Angeles, knows that separate visits for shorter amounts of time is the trick to saving her sanity. "I love all of my family members, but I've found smaller doses and not everyone all at once is best," she says. "The drastically different personality types and personal issues don't erupt as explosively when there's less than 15 people crammed into one small house."

She's also learned not to overextend herself by focusing on the ones that matter most. "Figure out your top-priority people to see and be okay with not having to squeeze in everyone else into a very short (and already hectic) amount of time," she suggests.

Another thing to keep in mind is that reconnecting with loved ones is about quality, not quantity. Lindsey says that learning the love languages of her best friends back home, who she always makes an effort see, has been a "game-changer." While she most enjoys quality time, she has a friend who responds to gifts, so a coffee date with a present exchange satisfies both love languages when time is tight.

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Don't Neglect Self-Care

If you're in a peaceful state of mind before going to Grandma's house, you're more likely to keep your cool once tension arises. Practice a few minutes of self-care in the days before and during your stay, especially if it's longer than 24 hours.

"It is entirely possible to approach a stressful situation from a calm perspective," says Dr. Brooks. "Ask yourself, 'How do I want to approach this,' 'What is important in my life,' 'What do I value?' Regardless of what happens, you will always be able to come back to this."

Yip notes that self-care can begin by making an out-of-town trip as pleasant as possible. "For your travels, find a way to make the trip pleasant," she says, suggesting bringing along a cozy blanket, a comfy neck pillow, or a good book.

Another safeguard, she says, is to pack your own self-care toolkit. This can include soothing lavender oil, headphones, a pair of running sneakers, calming tea, luxurious body lotion, a journal, or even a coloring book. It's also a good idea to download a playlist or apps designed to calm nerves; both Yip and Dr. Brooks recommend Headspace for guided meditation.

Anticipate Conflict (And Keep Your Cool If It Still Arises)

Avoiding controversial topics is sometimes easier said than done, and if a hot-button issue comes up, try to steer the conversation into neutral territory. Yip advises, "Focus on finding common ground. For instance, talking about children, pets, or hobbies can be less fraught than talking about politics or differences in religious beliefs."

Dr. Brooks says that setting boundaries ahead of time may help, too. "Make it known that the focus of this gathering is gratitude, family, friends, and coming together. If these topics are brought up, maintain firm boundaries by (calmly) letting the person know that you are not willing to talk about it at this time but would be willing to have a discussion at another time (if you are willing)."

But if an argument still surfaces, Dr. Brooks shares these in-the-moment self-control techniques. "It can be helpful to take deep breaths [and] to use self-talk or mantras to calm yourself down." She recommends silently repeating phrases like, "I can only control myself," and "'Others’ behavior is largely a reflection of them, not me," and reminds that you shouldn't be ashamed to excuse yourself if you have to. "In being mindful of your values, you are less likely to act impulsively and emotionally and therefore more likely to respond in a way that minimizes negative outcomes," she says.

Limit Alcohol Consumption

While being surrounded by your kin may make you tempted to down an entire bottle of wine, remember that that fourth serving of holiday punch makes you more likely to say something you regret. Instead, remember the importance of maintaining self-control and limit yourself to a couple drinks, tops.

Dr. Brooks adds that staying active, limiting sugar, and getting plenty of sleep will help keep your emotional wellbeing in check amidst holiday season stressors.

Give Yourself Some Credit

No one else may give you credit for keeping your temper in check, but you certainly can. "Find some ways to be compassionate to yourself before, during, and after the trip," Yip suggests, and, "Give yourself some credit for being a thoughtful person around the holidays and remember to appreciate all your efforts as well!"

Lindsey says that the holidays are much more enjoyable now that she's let go of guilt and accepted her boundaries. (After all, being pushed past your boundaries doesn't help anyone.) "I am now okay with going home for shorter periods of time instead of feeling like I have to make it an extra-long trip," she says. "I also have recognized my limits and my signs as to when I'm reaching my end and am okay with doing what I need to do for self-care."

*Name has been changed.