6 Ways to Cope With Family Stress at the Holidays

Stress levels naturally rise during the holidays — and this year perhaps more so. To deal with it, arm yourself with strategies for keeping your cool and taking breaks from family when you need them. Tim Hager/Shutterstock

During the holiday season, we come together with friends and family in good cheer to sit down for delicious meals and gift-swaps. Only, for most families, it's not all Hallmark and Rockwell.

Our stress level rises during the holidays. The holidays bring such lofty expectations for happy family reunions and social calendars packed with festive events. But it takes a lot of time and money to make those dreams a reality, and we often feel we're not "doing enough."

And that's exactly why our stress levels rise so much at this time of year. "The primary reason for increased stress during the holidays is unrealistic expectations," says Heidi Hanna, Ph.D., executive director of the American Institute of Stress and a New York Times best selling author. From there, it's a domino effect: We spend too much on gifts and create financial stress, we commit to too many obligations and create stress for our families, we fret over seeing a particular relative and create social stress, and so on.

Many people are approaching holiday gatherings with some trepidation. But we can lower anxiety, regain control and recenter ourselves by using these strategies.

Just say no

Busy schedule
The mental clutter that comes with keeping track of a busy family schedule can be a big source of stress. hidesy/Shutterstock

When you feel overwhelmed by commitments that don't really matter, you can learn to say no with grace and ease, Hanna says. And you should, because there are two main benefits. The first, according to Hanna, is because "saying no frees up the time and energy to say yes and fully show up for the moments that matter most to you."

To decide what those moments are, Hanna says, "Create your own picture of what you want the holiday season to look like and feel like, spend a few minutes each morning reflecting on what's most important to you. Then make a concrete plan to help you reach your own unique outcome."

The second reason to say no is because it gives you control, and stress is primarily affected by our sense of control, Hanna says. "When we believe we have the ability to navigate challenges and have the resources to do so effectively, stress is a stimulus for positive growth, seen as an adventure." In other words, we have more fun when we're more in control and less stressed.

Use humor

Man wearing a clown nose
It's hard to feel nasty or say mean things when you're wearing a red nose. Luis Molinero/Shutterstock

Humor is a wonderful tool for defusing a tense conversation or mood. And we could all stand to lighten up a little bit, says Loretta LaRoche, an international stress expert, humor consultant and author of "Relax! You May Only Have a Few Minutes Left."

How about this as an ice-breaker for a group gathering: “Go out and buy some red noses," says LaRoche. (Seriously, hear her out.) "Put one on each plate, and have everybody put it on at the beginning of the meal. See how the conversations go with the red nose. It’s pretty hard to feel nasty or say mean things when you have a red nose on. It’s the incongruity humor can present us with — when you’re starting to feel anger and you put on a red nose, it just sort of cancels it out."

In one-on-one conversations or a group chat, consider sharing something about yourself that you can see as humorous. "There’s nothing funnier than ourselves. We are the joke," LaRoche says. "You are a walking sitcom that begins with the ability to be vulnerable." Combining self-deprecation and the ability to laugh at ourselves lightens up the gathering.

Don't be afraid to act a little silly, LaRoche says. If you're in an uncomfortable discussion, “change the topic to something totally bizarre. That element of surprise is a disruptor. You have to learn how to parry and not in a mean way.”

If you arm yourself with these kinds of behavior skills, you'll be able to pivot the conversation and regain control over it.

Ignore them

Woman covering her ears
We don't mean you have to literally block your ears and cover your eyes. There are more polite ways to ignore people. pathdoc/Shutterstock

If you're feeling stressed or angry, there’s only one person who can make a difference in the situation, and that’s you, LaRoche says. So take the high road, and don't get pulled into an argument.

“People are always trying to find a way to change other people. Change yourself in the world and that makes a difference," she says. "If someone’s like that, just look at them and say, 'Oh well, what can you do?'"

Much like the advice given to people with stage fright about picturing an audience in their underwear, LaRoche says she likes to picture people as cartoons. "Maybe your uncle or aunt or grandmother is someone from 'The Simpsons.' Or reminds you of Minnie Mouse. It doesn’t have to be a mean-spirited thing — just a visual you hold in your head" to make you giggle internally a little.

You can watch their lips moving but only hear “blah blah blah,” LaRoche says. Or you can lip-dub them and make up a hilarious monologue for them in your head. Suddenly your Aunt Jane's annoying rant about a politician becomes a confession of her love of parkour. While it may not make you a respectful listener, it may keep you from saying things you regret as you listen to someone carry on in a negative or combative way.

Reframe your thinking

Photo: Nikodash/Shutterstock

Have you ever imagined a conversation in your mind — one that hasn't happened, and might never happen, but you get all worked up about it anyway and imagine how you'd respond if it did? That's not good for our future interactions, LaRoche says. Here's what it does to the relationship once the two of you actually do come face to face: When you’re talking to them, you’re not seeing them; instead you're seeing the person you’ve made stories up about. "Because that’s what we do," LaRoche says. "We make stories up, believe them, and share them with others in a global whining group.”

LaRoche tries to get people to see how funny their irrational thinking is. "Look into the mirror of your mind and reflect back to yourself what you’re thinking." Say it out loud. Does it still sound like a valid, rational thought that you want to express? Maybe it is, but maybe expressing it wouldn't be productive at this particular moment.

However, if you really feel like you're going to suffer during a holiday gathering, LaRoche advises you to "pre-suffer" instead. "Get up and write a whole list of things you’re going to suffer about when you get there. It’s called paradoxical intention — you worry on purpose. Get it out of your head and onto the paper so that you’re not in your head with it all day.” You can do that with any kind of stress, she says. "Put what’s bothering you into a list, and you see it." It allows you to ask yourself, "How true is this?”

Practice respectfulness

Family Christmas dinner
Don't damage your most important relationships by unloading stress onto those closest to you. Try to grow your levels of patience and understanding during trying times instead. gpointstudio/Shutterstock

Manners matter even more when times are tough, the Emily Post Institute says. "People unload their stress, dread and frustration on those closest to them, damaging their most important relationships," Peggy Post writes. "Etiquette is a particularly effective and attainable resource for weathering difficult times."

Stress is the main cause of rudeness, but Post says we can use the principles of etiquette — honesty, respect and consideration — to lower the volume on brash behavior. She suggests keeping these things in mind:

  • Expect others to be less patient and tolerant, and increase your own level of patience and understanding.
  • Be a good listener. And if you learn something private about another person, keep it confidential.
  • Try to share good news instead of doom and gloom. "More optimistic conversations will create a positive mood in your household," Post writes.
  • Communicate often, keeping your immediate family in the loop about events and obligations and flagging commitments that may be stressful.

Have some perspective

If you're at your in-laws' house and you feel like you can't stand their back-handed compliments any longer, just remember: “You’re not being held hostage, you're not in a prison and you’re going to leave at the end of the day. I think a little perspective would help," LaRoche says.

I'll leave you with a few last words of her wisdom: "Have as much fun as you can for God sake. Life is not that easy."