It’s easy to be excited about holiday gatherings when you get along with your relatives. For some of us, however, a dysfunctional family dynamic can be a source of intense stress this time of year. Emotional difficulties with family members are often exacerbated by hectic holiday travel and being stuck in close quarters together, which makes this season less than jolly for many people.
If you’re dreading seeing certain relatives for the holidays, there are things you can do to mitigate the anxiety. Mentally prepare yourself to cope during your family’s gathering with these four tips:
Understand Your Triggers
Think about exactly what causes your anxiety around your family. Is it political conversations? That one aunt who always asks about your dating life? Pressure to be polite and make small talk with people whom you don’t enjoy?
In an interview with CBS News, Dr. Simon Rego, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center, said the first step in coping with holiday stress is being aware of your potential triggers.
“If something triggered you last year, it will probably trigger you again this year,” Rego told CBS.
Once you’ve pinpointed the topics or individuals that stress you out, you can move on to the next step:
Set Your Boundaries
When you get to the gathering, scope out the seating arrangement. You can set physical boundaries on your stressors by strategically placing yourself away from relatives who set you off. Instead, seat yourself next to an ally, so you have a natural conversational escape.
You can also set emotional boundaries for yourself by owning your good time. Remind yourself that you deserve to enjoy the holidays as much as anyone, and you don’t have to allow family members to spoil it for you.
“Don’t falsely attribute your stress to everyone else,” Rego said. “You have to own your emotions.”
Find Something To Appreciate
Rego noted that if you’ve made an effort to attend the family gathering, there must be something you genuinely like about the people you’re seeing.
Build a “shield of positivity” upon your arrival by focusing your energy on what you appreciate, rather than what makes you anxious. Maybe you’re looking forward to catching up with a cousin you haven’t seen or enjoying one of your mother’s classic holiday cookies. Having a positive element to deflect the negativity you feel can help fight stress before it sets in.
Duck Out When The Drama Starts
If the atmosphere starts to get tense, take a deep breath and disengage. Simply shut the conversation down; it can be as easy as saying, “Let’s talk about something else,” or, “I’d rather not discuss that.” If things get really heated, you can excuse yourself and physically leave the room for a few minutes to calm down. Either way, you always have the freedom to walk away from any situation that makes you uncomfortable.
It’s important to remember that you can’t control the words and actions of your family members – only your own. They may or may not realize the negative impact they have on you, but you can make the choice to respond in a positive way.
“It’s up to you to manage your reactions to the world,” said Rego.
No matter what kind of family drama awaits you, it’s still possible to enjoy the holiday season. By arming yourself with some healthy coping strategies, you can overcome the “holiday blues” and head into the new year, ready to be your best self.