The ultimate survival guide for mentally coping during the holidays
For all the cheer the holidays bring, they can also be a time of stress. From having to attend numerous social events to interacting with multiple family members to feeling the loss of a loved one, there are many things that can be triggering during this time of year.
“The myth of [the] holidays also incurs a tremendous pressure to connect and have the perfect ‘Hallmark’ family reunion. For many people, this is just not possible. Yet the pressure is overwhelming and creates unrealistic expectations,” David Strah, a Los Angeles-based family and marriage therapist, tells HelloGiggles. “I tell my clients that the holidays are a time for reconnecting with family and friends [by] sharing our love and gratitude with them. However, for many of us, family members can trigger unresolved childhood issues and bring up feelings of unworthiness, unlovability, and even infantilizing us to when we were helpless children.”
If you’re feeling the stress of the season, we consulted with professional experts to provide us with essential tips on how to prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally for the holidays.
Set a positive intention.
Yes, the holidays can be stressful, but don’t let your mind chatter consume what could also be a happy time. Strah suggests setting an intention to stay calm and happy. “What can you look forward to? If you can’t think of anything, you need to organize some things to look forward to and ensure some fun,” she says.
If you need help to see the positive, Strah recommends visualizing yourself interacting with your family and being calm. “Imagine any annoying comments going in one ear and out the other without any emotional reactions from you,” says Strah. “Imagine a cone around your body that prevents stress from entering. If you can, remember any past times that made you feel good with your family members and breathe into that memory.”
Strah also says instead of thinking about how you want to reduce your stress, consider what you want to replace your stress with. “Is it going for a walk with your mother? Taking your father out for ice cream? Having a board game night with your whole family? Enjoying a meal out?” adds Strah. Think of what will make you feel happy and at ease, and take empowering steps to make that happen for you.
Consider whether typical traditions may be comforting or challenging for you.
According to Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, if you’re dealing with grief and/or struggling with the death of a loved one, you might consider adopting new traditions.
“Some people find comfort in keeping their usual traditions but adapting them in [a new] way, while others may not want to carry on with their [familiar] traditions,” she tells HelloGiggles. “If holding to long-standing traditions proves too painful, consider developing new family traditions.”
Either way, there is no right or wrong answer: “It’s what works best for you and your family. It’s okay to take a year off from your typical traditions. [You can] decide next year if you [want to] resume them.”
Minimize your time with your family.
“We tend to arrange holidays with the idea that the extended family should all stay together for numerous days,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine. “[There’s] no breaks from one another, which means [there’s an] increased stress around trying to get along hour after hour, day after day with people you don’t live with any longer and likely have different ways of doing and thinking.”
The solution: Limit your stay to something realistic. Maybe you spend one or two days with your mom and dad, and stay at an Airbnb for the remainder of your stay. Or make plans to split up and take breaks from one another throughout the days you’re spending together. Remember: You don’t have to spend every waking moment together.
Set boundaries and manage expectations before you visit.
Boundaries are an essential part of your self-care tool kit. If there’s an ongoing strife between you and a loved one, call them and talk about how you can put it behind you before the holidays. “[Communicating] beforehand to resolve, apologize, understand and listen can go a long way to make the holidays less stressful,” says Saltz.
Similarly, Strah recommends telling your family in advanced there are certain topics that are off the table for discussion. “You can say this in a nice but assertive way. For example, ‘Mom, I am really looking forward to visiting for Thanksgiving. In order to really enjoy my time with you, I would appreciate it if we did not talk about…’ or ‘Dad, you know I love you. But since we don’t agree on politics, let’s agree not to discuss them,'” she says.
If the topic of politics does come up, for example, author and former White House aide Jamie Hantman says, “First, take a deep breath. Stay as calm and dispassionate as possible. Then remind yourself that this is a person in your life whom you love and care for. Next, you can try to divert the conversation in a non-controversial way: ‘There’s been so much happening in the news lately. I’m thankful we can take a day off from that and catch up on each other’s lives!’ You get the idea. This might work, but it might not.”
Another trick? If someone tries to corner you, insisting that their opinion—political, religious, whatever—is correct, Dr. Susan Pollak, psychologist and mindfulness teacher, recommends to smile, and respond with, “You may be right.”
“I learned this [phrase] from a meditation teacher,” she tells HelloGiggles. “People usually back off with this response, while you’re thinking, ‘And you may be wrong…’”
Bottom line: Set your boundaries while also letting your family members know that your intention is to enjoy your time with them. But if things get heated, give yourself permission to take a timeout. “You can let family members know [this] by saying, ‘I’m concerned this is a topic that upsets me. I need to take a break,'” says Strah. “Change the subject, go for a walk, or take a nap.”
Take a self-compassion break and breather.
Following that train of thought, Pollak says that when things get rough at home, try giving yourself a self-compassion break, which can be done even during a difficult or heated conversation, or whenever you’re feeling particularly anxious over a certain situation.
According to Pollak, your self-compassion break involves three simple steps: “One, notice that this is hard. You might want to stop and say to yourself, ‘This is a difficult moment.’ Two, [remember] you’re not alone in having a family that pushes your buttons. You might say, ‘There are thousands (if not millions) of people who are having a frustrating time right now. I am not alone in this,'” she says. “And thirdly, extend some kindness or compassion to yourself [by] saying, ‘Let me be kind to myself.’ This may be new behavior for you but research shows that beating yourself up or calling yourself names only makes things worse. [Instead,] focus on getting through the day.”
Also, don’t forget to breathe. Strah recommends trying the 4-7-8 breathing technique: Inhale for four seconds, hold for seven seconds and exhale for eight seconds. “Try this for a few minutes. Deep breathing gets us back into our bodies and out of our heads which helps us relax,” she adds.
Remember to take care of yourself.
All of our experts agree that taking care of yourself mentally and physically is key during the holidays. “Practicing self-care— specifically, eating well, drinking water, getting enough sleep and exercise, and guarding against the use of alcohol or other substances—may help to reduce stress during this difficult time,” says Moutier. “Engage in activities that feel restorative to you. These practices will help for both the short- and long-term healing journey.”
Adds Strah: “[Ask yourself], ‘What would be fun for [me]?’ An ice-skating party and hot cocoa? Caroling? Snowshoeing or sledding? The holidays are a wonderful time to reconnect with your inner child’s spirit and playfulness. Take an empowered approach and organize plenty of activities that you will look forward to and enjoy. If you can, go away for a weekend, take a staycation or vacation.”
Accept things for the way they are.
Maybe you aren’t going to have a heartwarming holiday with loving family members. While this can be upsetting, Strah says, it might be better to grieve your losses and look for other people to enjoy and connect with. “Consider a Friendsgiving or spending time with your best friends [by going] on a trip [together].” If you’re in need of additional support, seek help from a professional therapist or psychologist if it works for you financially.
When in doubt, focus on the good in your life and stay true to yourself and honor your needs. With the above tips, you’ll not only survive the holidays, but you’ll thrive.
If you are struggling and need help, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), available Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.–6 p.m., ET. If this is an emergency, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or text NAMI’s Crisis Line at 741-741.