Self Defense

6 Tactics To Help Limit Family Stress This Holiday Season, According To Therapists

When you gather with extended family, tension is inevitable. This advice can help you keep your center.

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Feeling frustrated with extended family is as much a part of the holiday as eating sweets and unwrapping presents. Even if you love every member of your family dearly, this remains true. Because of course it does. Everyone brings their own competing expectations, baggage, and personal stressors to the occasions — yourself included.

“Family relationships are complicated and can bring both joy and stress,” says Raul Haro, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “These stressors can manifest themselves in a variety of ways, such as managing expectations at holiday gatherings, navigating differences in values or beliefs, or dealing with difficult personalities within the family.”

Extended family drama can be triggered by a number of things, from old rivalries, to feelings of being judged. We can fall into childhood patterns of behavior, trying to please certain members of the family and allow little comments or criticisms (Okay, I get it Uncle Frank, the turkey is a little salty!) easily burrow under our skin.

“When dealing with extended family stressors,” Haro says, “it’s common for people to feel drained and overwhelmed.”

It certainly is, and it’s important to remember this and come prepared with some tactics to deploy when you’re about to lose it. To that end, we asked a variety of therapists for their advice on what to do to keep your cool around extended family stressors. Keep the advice in mind when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

1. Know Your Triggers

“We all have those well-meaning relatives who might be criticizing your life choices or suggesting that you might be doing wrong as a parent. These can be potential stressors that can be seen as triggers. Understanding your triggers and emotional responses helps. Triggers are an intense flood of emotions that feel out of context for the situation, and physical symptoms like an increased heart rate, discomfort or muscle tension. Pay attention to them. Do you feel anxious or overwhelmed? When might you have felt this before? Understand the emotions that arise, hold space for them, and identify what you need to feel more grounded.” – Marina Kerlow, Licensed Graduate Marriage and Family Therapist.

2. Decide Which Hills You’re Willing to Die On

“Picking apart every unhealthy dynamic in a toxic family all at once is a recipe for burnout, so choose a few and be consistent in holding firm on them. It can be exhausting if you are determined to correct every miscommunication, address every inappropriate comment, and analyze the context of every request asked of you.

Instead, try picking your battles. Decide on your non-negotiable boundaries and standards, and then give yourself permission to let the other transgressions slide. This can help you experience more pleasant and cohesive family interactions without sacrificing your personal convictions. ” – Angela Sitka, licensed marriage and family therapist

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Step Away

“When it comes to family gatherings, there can be a great deal of pressure to always be ‘on’ and present. That doesn’t mean that you can’t take some time to go for a short walk to clear your head or volunteer to drive to the store for more ice just to get out of the house. Do something for yourself, whatever it is, that makes you happy, calm, and content. This refresher can help you get back into the chaos and plan the events with more ease. Too much time and focus on creating the holiday events can cause one to feel overwhelmed and unnecessarily stressed. Find the balance between planning events and caring for oneself. If the stress is so high in the planning stages, it is unlikely that the event will bring you joy.” – Jennifer Kelman, licensed clinical social worker.

4. Don’t Lose Sight of How You’re Feeling

“We often, in the context of family dynamics, perform for others, rather than out of a sense of belonging and joy. We overextend ourselves, say ‘yes’ when we would prefer to say ‘no,’ and sacrifice much-needed downtime with the intention of making other people happy. If you're stressed by family responsibilities, remind yourself that stress is nothing more than your activity level surpassing your energy level. Pay attention to your stress level, and when stress shows up, step back. Take time for yourself. Bring focus on restoring your physical and mental state with proper nutrition, enough sleep and expressing yourself truthfully and seeking support to restore a calmer state of mind and reduce worries you may have. Ensure also to prioritize rest and recharge those batteries.” – Dr. Monica Vermani, Clinical Psychologist

5. Make Your Boundaries Clear

“When it comes to family engagements during the holidays, we need to prioritize what's truly important to us. If you're trying to decide whether or not to go to a family event because you know the people there are going to raise your blood pressure, or worse, ask yourself the same question Marie Kondo would: ‘Does this spark joy?’

If you know there will be people there that you feel connected with and who make you happy, then go and focus on spending time with them; it's likely you'll be able to serve as support for one another. But if it just doesn't feel manageable, if being around your family makes you unhappy or anxious, then graciously, but firmly, explain why you will either minimize your engagement, or skip it all together.

During the holidays family expectations can run very high, and taking the risk of saying 'no' and disappointing someone is hard. But running yourself ragged or exposing yourself to harm or abuse in order to please everyone else will only lead to further heartache. If they truly care about you and your well being, they'll understand.” – Kristina Scott, Psychotherapist

6. Change Your Role

"Family dynamics tend to follow the same pattern with every get together, with everyone adopting certain roles and behaviors and sticking to them accordingly. However these patterns manifest themselves, they tend to repeat themselves again and again. Look at what your role is in the family and change it up. Actively noticing and altering the roles you and your family members typically play can lead to insightful changes in dynamics.

For example, if you often assume the role of the 'listener' in the family, try initiating conversations or offering opinions during a family gathering. This shift can not only change how you engage but also how your family perceives and interacts with you. It's an exercise in breaking patterns and exploring new ways of relating that move beyond the confines of established roles." – Rod Mitchell, therapist.

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