Tips for Surviving Family Gatherings & Beating Holiday Stress

by Liz Arch
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Tips for Surviving Family Gatherings & Beating Holiday Stress

The holidays are upon us. For most of us, that means heading home to spend time with our loved ones, which can either be a joyous or anxiety-inducing occasion depending on our family. As spiritual teacher Ram Dass once said, “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.”

I personally have a complicated relationship with the holidays. My mom died two weeks before Thanksgiving, and we held her funeral three days after Christmas, so this time of year always stirs up a healthy amount of grief for me. Beyond my grief, I also struggle with normal familial triggers that returning home during the holidays uniquely presents.

My mom always used to joke that our family put the “fun” in dysfunction. And it’s true that no matter how old we get and no matter how much we think we’ve evolved, our families have an uncanny ability to bring out our inner five-year old, complete with temper tantrums and all. In my daily life, I am relatively cool and composed. But as soon as I’m back home, all bets are off. One snarky comment from my sister can instantly reduce me to tears. Wounds that I thought were long-healed turn out to be fresh scabs that are easily picked off.

That’s the nature of family. They install our buttons, which means they know how to push them. So how can we make going home for the holidays a less stressful experience?

“Wounds that I thought were long-healed turn out to be fresh scabs that are easily picked off.”

PRACTICE COMPASSION

Remind yourself that everyone is doing the best they can with the tools they have. Rather than placing blame or judgment, use this as an opportunity to practice compassion. The things we judge most harshly about others are usually the things we like the least about ourselves. Do your best to understand what your family’s wounds are, so when they criticize or patronize, you don’t personalize their attack. What are they struggling with? What are they unhappy with in their own lives? What are their insecurities? What are their triggers? If you can recognize and hold compassionate space for their inner children, the chances of your inner child making its own dramatic entrance greatly diminishes.

“Remind yourself that everyone is doing the best they can with the tools they have.”

PRACTICE MINDFULNESS

Mindfulness is a state of present-time awareness that allows us to observe our thoughts, feelings, sensations and actions — without becoming overwhelmed and consumed by them. Mindfulness helps us develop the ability to respond rather than to react to triggering situations. You can practice mindfulness anytime, anywhere.

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New to mindfulness? Try this simple body-scan technique. Close your eyes, and observe how you’re feeling in your body in this moment. Notice any physical sensations: accelerated heart rate, a rush of heat, tingling in your hands or feet, a flutter in your chest, a knot in your belly, tension in your shoulders, sweaty palms, etc. Observe yourself with curiosity but without any judgment.

Then notice if these sensations are tied to a particular emotion. Anticipation, nervousness, excitement, fear, expectation, anxiety. Welcome all feelings without labeling them as good or bad. There is no right or wrong. We are simply practicing being the observer without analyzing or trying to fix or change anything.

Begin to take a few long, slow, deep belly breaths. Feel your abdomen expanding as you inhale and your abdomen falling as you exhale. Continue breathing for a few moments, and then check back in with your body. Are the sensations still present? Has anything softened, released or shifted?

Mindfulness allows us to objectively track what’s present for us moment to moment and find acceptance and peace for whatever the moment holds.

“Welcome all feelings without labeling them as good or bad. There is no right or wrong.”

START A MEDITATION PRACTICE 

Meditation is a more formal practice than mindfulness. Like any discipline, it’s a skill that takes consistent practice to develop. Studies have shown that meditation actually changes your brain by increasing the brain’s gray matter. Meditation has also been shown to improve concentration and attention, reduce stress, significantly alleviate anxiety, be effective in treating depression and even reduce physical pain.

When I first started meditating, I would squeeze my eyes shut as tightly as I could, convinced this would somehow magically turn off my thoughts. When this inevitably failed, I would beat myself up for not being “good” at meditation and write it off as a waste of time. It took me a long time to realize that the goal was not to stop my thoughts, but rather to become the observer of the fluctuations of the mind and cultivate the ability to catch myself before my thoughts wandered off too far.

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Never meditated before? Try this simple breath-count concentration exercise. Deeply inhale. At the bottom of your exhalation, mentally count one. Take another full inhalation. At the bottom of your next exhalation, mentally count two. Continue counting each full cycle of breath all the way up to ten. Then count backwards from 10 down to one.

When you first start, you may only count up a few numbers before your mind wanders off. The practice is to notice when your mind has drifted and bring it back to your breath count. The more you practice, the less your brain will pull you into distractions and the more concentration and clarity you will find in your daily life.

Meditation helps to improve your relationship with yourself, which will ultimately help improve your relationship with others. Your family might still squabble over the dinner table, but the less reactive and more calm and composed you are, the more space you create for peaceful and pleasant interactions.

CREATE BOUNDARIES

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When all else fails, know when to create healthy boundaries. Sometimes the healthiest and most loving thing we can do for ourselves is not to go home at all. That might sound extreme at first, but if you know that home is a toxic or unsafe environment, have no guilt for choosing to create a relaxing sanctuary for yourself elsewhere during the holidays. As George Burns once said: “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”

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  • Elizabeth

    I really appreciate your wise and insightful sharing. Thank you for emphasizing the importance of creating healthy boundaries with clarity & compassion for those of us with toxic families. It’s been three decades since I made the loving choice to love my family of origin from a safe distance. This choice has been vital to my physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health over the course of my adult life. Few truly understand the importance of setting bondaries and it can be lonely at times. There is often a lot of harsh judgement directed at those of us who consciously choose not to partipate in the dysfunction (or the pretending at being a close knit family). It’s wonderful that you have the courage to write openly about the reality many of us live with so that we know we are not alone. We value your honesty, integrity, and support.

  • Nicole LaFleur Ekelund

    Thank you for this article. My parents are coming to visit my husband and I for Thanksgiving and this has stirred up a lot of angst for me. The last time my husband and I weren’t getting along well for reasons we still have not completely gotten to the bottom of. As a matter of fact we just got in an argument trying to talk about getting ready! I am feeling emotionally raw place