It’s that time of year again! Friends and family gather to celebrate the holidays. We come together with or without significant others, with or without children. And the spirit of the season brings fun and excitement. At least for some, it is enjoyable, maybe even magical. Yet for others, the season turns stressful and sad.
The recipe that makes the season jolly, or not, can be complicated. It is not as formulaic as a spoonful of this or a cup of that. Well, actually multiple cups of this or that may be contributing to your seasonal anxiety—if, for example, you have a relative who has a drinking problem and predictably does something that is dreadfully uncomfortable for everyone involved.
There are a number of ways that the holidays can be stressful for all of us. With the season of jolly come reminders of life events both happy and sad. For some, it can be a reminder of an unhappy childhood, shuttling back and forth from mom’s house to dad’s house after a divorce. It can also be a time of sadness for those who have lost a family member recently, or perhaps even on the actual day of the holiday.
A range of difficult emotions can resurface during the holidays in connection with parents, in-laws, divorced parents, the loss of family members, or falling short of your hopes in life. Perhaps you desired to be married or have a child by this year’s holiday and spending time with family members who enjoy those things can be painful.
Marriage and family therapists have a unique perspective when viewing problems. We think that our concerns must be examined in the context of relationships and that our relationships with family play a pivotal role in our well-being. As clinicians, we have witnessed how easily one negative remark or action can undo many positive ones, leaving us vulnerable to emotional injuries from holidays past. Many of us carry a narrative about how things will go at the dinner table, which can affect the experience of the day. The holiday season calls especially for the ability to see things systemically, recognizing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
It is helpful to think of strategies for dealing with some of the emotional challenges of the season. Keep in mind that you are not alone and that everyone has some level of anxiety around the holidays. For better or for worse, we are all connected to our families in ways that have shaped our identity.
Here are some suggestions for managing the ups and downs of the holiday season:
Mindfulness: Don’t go into your family gathering with a laundry list of past grievances or overthink all the ways that the day will likely be a disaster. Be present and open to the experience of the day. Keep your mind on being where you are – not the hurt 10-year-old who had to take care of mom or dad when they were depressed. Let your mantra be “a moment at a time.”
Breathe: When we feel nervous or anxious, our bodies respond in ways that make the experience worse and before you know it you may find yourself in a full-blown panic. Slow down your negative thoughts by focusing on your breath. Prepare yourself for the possibility of anxious moments and download a 5-minute meditation or breathing exercise.
Expectations: The holiday season is often idealized through media hype, which can let fantasy hijack our thoughts and lead to disappointment when the day doesn’t live up to what we had envisioned. Be realistic! Keep expectations low and in check. You might be delightfully surprised by the outcome.
Boundaries: Set clear boundaries for yourself around what you can and cannot do. If you are struggling with issues related to spending time with your in-laws, for example, make it clear to them that you will be spending a set amount of time with them. Predetermine the amount of time with your spouse or partner and stick with the plan. Be respectful and do not give long-winded explanations about your choices.
Honoring Your Losses: It can be helpful to have a ritual to honor and remember loved ones that have passed. Some find it helpful to light a candle, place a commemorative ornament, participate in a religious service, visit the grave site, or write about your grief in a blog (it can be cathartic, even if the blog is kept private).
Be Kind to Yourself: This tip is a reminder to be good to yourself, give yourself permission to slow down and to live within your emotional means. Pay attention to healthy life choices that include exercise, sleep, hydration and healthy eating. When we are kind to ourselves, it makes it easier to be kind to others – even that relative that drives you crazy!
Vanessa Bradden, LMFT is a staff member at AAMFT, collaborating with the Communications Department as a product development specialist. She has a private practice in Chicago and is an AAMFT Approved Supervisor. Vanessa’s clinical interests and expertise include working with individuals and couples coping with perinatal mood disorders, pregnancy loss as well as grief and other losses.