How to Cope With Family During the Holidays

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The festive season is the time when many people return to their childhood homes to spend quality time with their families. Although this sounds fun in theory, it can be an incredibly stressful and exhausting time if past issues or arguments arise.

Returning home from living alone or with a family of your own can reignite old traumas and conflicts, and childhood patterns of behavior can emerge between adults and children alike. 

Finding yourself in this dynamic can be a struggle; however, there are constructive ways to cope with this stress.

Take Time for Yourself

Although the holidays are notorious for potentially awkward family dinners and forced social events, it is still essential to make time for yourself. Being around people can be tiring, especially if they have a negative impact on your wellbeing. Plan some time where you can engage in self-care, such as:

  • Going for a walk – Exercise is a great way to get some space and immerse yourself in nature for a while. Exercise is also a known mood booster, producing feel-good endorphins to provide a quick pick-me-up when your family gets overwhelming.
  • Meditating – Meditation is an excellent way to practice mindfulness and get some valuable time alone. It has also been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, which is ideal for coping with family time over the holidays.[1]
  • Journaling – Keeping a journal is a beneficial way to track your stress, moods, and worries. It may help you identify your triggers when returning home for the holidays so that you can plan coping strategies.

Carving out space for yourself and your mental health will help you manage the stress of the holiday season. Remember it’s always okay to say no – you don’t have to attend every event thrown at you!

Limit Your Drinking

Many people who are anxious about going home are tempted to drink more over the holiday season. It makes barbed conversations and unbearable events slip by more smoothly but can have some adverse effects on your overall mental health.

Alcohol interacts with the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) system, which lessens feelings of anxiety when drinking.[2] However, when we stop drinking, our GABA then spikes, leading to increased anxiety.

Alcohol can also interfere with sleep and lead to further feelings of anxiety. A lack of sleep or experiencing interrupted sleep affects your mood and emotional health, which in turn can increase your anxiety once more in a vicious cycle.

Try managing your anxiety and moods in healthier ways than alcohol, such as:

  • Yoga – Yoga is a great way to manage your anxiety and mood over the holidays. It brings the body and mind together in peaceful exercise that decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol and calms anxiety.[3]
  • Healthy eating – Although the holidays feature an abundance of delicious food, some will negatively affect your mood. Try not to drink caffeine after 2 pm and limit the amount of sugar you eat throughout the day, as both can interfere with your sleep and energy level.

 Manage Your Relationships

Managing your relationships over the holidays requires careful strategizing to allow you to end difficult conversations or supply planned answers, so that triggering questions can be pre-empted.

Plan out ways to change the subject or make a graceful exit from a conversation that you want no part in. For example, if you’re cornered by an unwelcome uncle trying to ask about your job, make your exit by saying that you promised to help in the kitchen. You could also suggest doing something different, such as playing a board game or getting a snack.

An excellent way to manage your relationships with family members is to set firm boundaries. Boundaries can protect your mental and emotional wellbeing while showing your family what you will and will not tolerate. Setting boundaries can look like many things, including:

  • Refusing to talk about a particular topic
  • Staying for a set amount of time
  • Saying no to events or parties
  • Refusing to tolerate any violations of your boundaries

Boundaries are crucial in maintaining your mental health, especially around toxic people. Some people may not like or respect your boundaries, but it is important not to feel guilty or selfish for having them because they are necessary for your wellbeing.

In some cases, you may feel able to address your concerns and feelings with your family members. Write down how you are feeling and share this information with a few people. They may change their behavior once they realize how they are making you feel.

However, you may not be in a position to talk to your family about how you feel. Some family members may disregard your feelings and dismiss your valid concerns. In this case, it is important to remember that you do not have to spend time with your family over the holidays. If your family is damaging your mental health and refusing to take your feelings into account, you have every right to leave.

Plan Ahead

Making plans over the holiday period can help you cope when staying with family. Having structure to each day takes away any uncertainty, even if it is just a loose plan. You also don’t have to plan to be productive over the holidays if you are not working; plans can mean meeting up with old friends, taking walks, or even just winding down from the previous year.

There are other ways to make plans for the holiday season:

  • Plan what you need to feel comfortable in a new place if you’re going away.
  • Because certain places can bring back difficult memories and emotions, try avoiding them or limiting your time there.
  • Going back to your family home can make some people feel incredibly lonely. If you’re worried about feelings of loneliness, plan to video call with a friend or spend time in nature.
  • Plan something to do in the New Year. Having something fun to look forward to may help to make the season more bearable.

For those who have experienced traumatic events in their childhood homes, the thought of returning for the holidays can be daunting. However, you always have the option to spend the holidays in a different place, such as with your partner’s family or with friends. There is also no shame in spending the festive season alone; you can dedicate the day to doing whatever you want with no interference!

Conclusion

The holidays are often portrayed in books, movies, and songs as the most wonderful time of the year. Studies have shown that people tend to be happier when they focus on family and spiritual activities.[4] However, many people find that this isn’t their reality.  No family is perfect, but some families can be incredibly draining and challenging to manage. These coping strategies can help protect your mental health and wellbeing over the holidays until you can get back to your own life.

If you or anyone you know is struggling please do not suffer alone. Please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates.  Call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com today.


Sources:

[1] Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EM, Gould NF, Rowland-Seymour A, Sharma R, Berger Z, Sleicher D, Maron DD, Shihab HM, Ranasinghe PD, Linn S, Saha S, Bass EB, Haythornthwaite JA. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Mar;174(3):357-68. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018. PMID: 24395196; PMCID: PMC4142584.

[2] Ngo, Dai-Hung, and Thanh Sang Vo. “An Updated Review on Pharmaceutical Properties of Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid”. Molecules, vol 24, no. 15, 2019, p. 2678. MDPI AG, doi:10.3390/molecules24152678. Accessed 22 Nov 2021.

[3] Katuri, Kishore Kumar et al. “Association of yoga practice and serum cortisol levels in chronic periodontitis patients with stress-related anxiety and depression.” Journal of International Society of Preventive & Community Dentistry vol. 6,1 (2016): 7-14. doi:10.4103/2231-0762.175404

[4] Kasser, Tim, and Kennon M. Sheldon. “What makes for a merry Christmas?.” Journal of happiness studies 3.4 (2002): 313-329.

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