Handling Family Stress during the Holidays

Written by Rachel H.

December 15, 2022

The holiday season is prime time for bringing up stress in our most important relationships, and for a lot of my clients, this shows up the most when spending time with their family of origin. Winter holidays can come with many cultural and familial expectations and pressures, whether those are spoken out loud or just implied by signals such as heavy sighs or raised voices. 

Know that the holidays are a perfect storm for relationship stress, as we’re often juggling things like:

  • Increased workloads
  • A jump in the number of social and family gatherings
  • Financial pressures that come with gift giving and travel
  • Hearing talk of planning for next year when we’re still playing catch up in the one we’re still in
  • Clashes in ideas and expectations around how to spend our time

COVID has only increased the stress levels for most folks over the last two years, as it’s messed with traditions and travel plans. For some, it offered a welcome reprieve from having to run from one family gathering to the next or spend time with relatives we’d rather keep long-distance. For others, it signified a loss, which could bring up more pressure around what quality time should look like this year. 

The first step to handling holiday-related family and relationship stress is to start with your own well-being. 

No one can pour from an empty cup. While your self-care might look a little different this time of year, it’s important not to neglect it completely. 

If you’re feeling pressed for time, think small. This might mean taking a pause from your work day to close your eyes and consciously take a few deep breaths, get outside for a short walk, or write in a journal. 

Just keep in mind…

Self-care doesn’t just happen when you’re alone.

It’s just as important to check in with yourself during social and family gatherings and visits to relatives’ homes. Pay attention to areas of tightness and tension in your body and emotions that start to stir – this is important information. 

That doesn’t mean you have to act on what you’re feeling right away – that’s actually usually not a good idea, especially when we’re spending time with people who may trigger old patterns. Rather, send compassion to whatever experience you’re having. 

That being said…

Get curious, not judgmental, about the pull of old family dynamics

There’s nothing like spending time with close family members to make us feel like we’re reverting back to our teenage or even child selves. This is very normal, and the more you bring it into your awareness, the more you’ll be ready to remind those younger parts of yourself that they no longer need to drive the bus.

Get curious about whatever is getting stirred up and ask those parts of yourself what kind of attention and care they’re needing from a place of compassion and wisdom.

And for those of us who like to feel as prepared as possible…

It can be helpful to come up with an action plan

Having a plan of action can help ease anticipatory anxiety and allow you to feel more prepared for potentially stressful holiday situations. The more that you are in touch with your stress response and understand your triggers, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with high-tension situations.

For example, if you know that spending time at large family gatherings brings up feelings of overstimulation and overwhelm, you might intentionally limit your time there and/or plan to go outside for some movement or breathing breaks.

Which leads us into one of my favorite topics…

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries!

Having limits and boundaries is essential in any relationship, and can be particularly useful to lean into around the holidays. If you’re feeling pulled in a lot of different directions, it can help to first get clear on what matters most to you.

When you can lead from that place of having clarity around your values, wants and needs, you’re more likely to feel aligned with your decisions, even when they aren’t always easy to make. No one can do it all, and we often build feelings of resentment if we try. 

On that note…

Know when to say no and when to go

Remember that you are an adult who has choices and it’s OK to say no to something even if you’ve always said “yes” in the past. You also do not need to stick around to tolerate any kind of emotional abuse. If you know that you’re walking into a potentially volatile or unsafe situation, have a plan of action around leaving.

And if it all feels like too much…

Reach out to a therapist in Philadelphia

Interested in better understanding why you feel and react the way you do when you spend time with family around the holidays? It might be time to consider talking to a therapist who specializes in relationship issues. 

I help clients understand how their family of origin has shaped them, and how to set boundaries and limits from a place of clarity, compassion and confidence. Reach out today to schedule a free phone or video consultation. 

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