5 Tips to Managing Holiday Stress at Family Gatherings

Manage holiday stress

Do holiday family gatherings stir up feelings of excitement and dread at the same time? Do you worry about holiday stress ruining your chance to enjoy yourself and your family?

Sometimes, joining family celebrations can trigger mixed feelings. We want to be part of the fun, but we grow more anxious the closer the time comes to join our crowd. Will we be okay, or will our worries come true — that something triggering will happen?

You may have every intention to celebrate, but something inside you is bracing for a painful surprise. Maybe part of you recalls family experiences that stung, or left you shaken and jarred.

Even if the moment you dread never comes, your body still remembers earlier holiday stress. This makes it challenging to relax and take in the good experiences you want to enjoy.

Taking good care of yourself — your thoughts and feelings — is especially important at family gatherings. Your calm and steady presence will do a lot for your own enjoyment. It can also help spread peace and good will among family, too, just by example.

Here are a few tips to help you prepare and enjoy family time the way you want to:

1) Get support or buffers from family — Ahead of time, turn toward a spouse, friend or family member you trust, and let them know some of your mixed feelings. Does talking to this person help you feel heard and accepted? Make plans to spend time with this person, whether socializing or during another part of the get-together. If you’re headed to separate places, ask if it would work to set a time to check in with each other.

2) Ask if alcohol will be served – and whether you feel it should be. If you are not comfortable attending where the guests you know will be drinking, you do not have to go. It is more than okay to excuse yourself, or simply make other plans if you do not feel safe or content to be around when alcohol is served to your crowd.

3) Help out. Sometimes the best way to make a safe place for your body and mind is to host a gathering or activity yourself. Cook and have others bring a side dish. Bring a deck of cards or some favorite boxed games and plan a family game night. Offer to make place cards or take charge of seating. Think about your own interests and energy level, and offer to do something you feel good about doing.

4) Seek out friends or ways to volunteer. Ask yourself if you really need to be around family a hundred percent of the time. Taking a few hours away to see friends or help a group is a great way to give the most important gift of all — your time and attention.

Volunteer opportunities may be available through local places of worship, homeless shelters, or animal shelters.   You may be able to join a chorus, go on a local hike, bike ride or walk with a local group, if you do a little digging ahead of your visit. Think about what might interest you, and see what might be going on.

5) Take time for really good self-care. If seeing some family members triggers flashbacks, memories of traumatic events, overwhelm, or anxiety that impacts your daily thoughts and feelings — stop and reach out for help. There is no shame in admitting you need more support, and getting the help you need.

For people with a history of trauma, holidays can heighten the pain of difficult times together. There can be pain around the person who drank too much, or another who said terribly hurtful things to you in the past. Even if the dangers are gone, people with a history of trauma struggle with reminders of events that brought pain, shame and hardship.

Know that your safety trumps all other expectations. You have a right to completely avoid perpetrators, hurtful people, or dysfunctional settings that may trigger you. If you decide to “call in sick” or simply be absent, don’t answer calls and messages from anyone from this group. Today, you are the capable, responsive adult who has stepped up to care for the precious child within. If you’d rather choose the gift of your own company, celebrate your power, ability, and freedom to do this now.

You may not even know why the holidays leave you feeling so overwhelmed and unable to join in as you wish. Working with a qualified therapist — especially one who practices trauma informed care — may be the most important step you take this year. Good therapy gives you a safe place to face and work through stressful experiences. You can find ways to make the holidays special and meaningful in new ways for you and your loved ones.

In fact, planning to talk to a therapist for whatever you need is a brave and positive idea that can change your long-term outlook on the holidays and life for the better.

Sometimes, the best approach is gratitude. Take time to appreciate your good intentions to love others — and their intentions to love you — despite all our human imperfections. Look for the good that your family members attempt to do for each other — no matter how awkward or unclear their ways of doing it are. There are good people who care about you. Take time to savor good will from people who make you feel safe. Enjoy the feelings of warmth and affection you find in your own heart.

Say what good things you see — let others know about the positive actions you see around you. Gratitude can go a long way to helping you find the joy and cause for celebration that brings you together once a year.

Other Reading From the Blog

Healthy Boundaries: When You Need Them, How to Create Them and How to Make Them Work for You

Trauma-Informed Care: Understanding the Many Challenges of Toxic Stress

Loving a Trauma Survivor: Understanding Childhood Trauma’s Impact On Relationships

More Resources

An Adult Child Abuse Survivor’s Guide to the Holidays by Dr. Kathleen Young

Phone Applications for Relaxation

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