Holiday Stress: Conversations, Emotional Triggers, & Expectations

It’s hard not to wonder what the holidays were like for the humorist Victor Borge when he said, “Santa Claus has the right idea. Visit people once a year.”

Perhaps family gatherings produced feelings of anxiety rather than comfort and joy? Or maybe there were intense expectations surrounding adhering to traditions: it’s just not Christmas unless I make Grandma Flo’s 22-ingredient cheese log!  Is it possible he had a strained relationship with an out-spoken, cranky aunt who voted for the “wrong” person in the last election? Whatever the reason, Mr. Borge shared this humorous gift with a shiny ribbon of truth: family dynamics and the holidays can be particularly stressful.

Have you ever wondered why spending the holidays with family can be so hard? For some people the holidays are associated with unresolved family issues or a painful childhood. If you experience difficulties with your family, it is possible that for most of the year you were able to avoid them and the emotional wounds they dredge up. Studies show that most people experience high levels of stress during the holidays and family gatherings can be a significant trigger for depression and anxiety, particularly in those who already struggle with mental health issues. Here are a few strategies to help you cope with difficult conversations, emotional triggers, and holiday expectations:

Conversations

What topic of conversation creates conflict for your family? For many, it’s religion and politics. It is easy to get sucked in to these conversations, especially if they evoke a strong emotional response. It is okay to have passion for what you believe, and it is okay to share that passion. Just remember the same holds true for other family members, and let’s be realistic, you’re not likely to change Uncle Eddie’s opinion and behavior at this one turkey dinner. Think of this as a great time to show other family members how to respect differing opinions. Set boundaries by choosing in advance what topics you will and won’t engage in and consider avoiding taboo topics altogether. Finally, keep things light by planning activities that foster fun and laughter. Research has shown smiling changes people’s moods and helps to relieve stress.

Triggers

Thinking about what makes family gatherings difficult will help you identify trigger thoughts that increase stress, anxiety, and anger (think: people, smells, tone of voice). Knowing your triggers will give you a chance to feel differently about them and make a plan for how to cope with them when they occur. One way to manage triggers is by calming yourself with a deep breath. Deep breathing sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. When emotionally triggered we can react irrationally and attack others. Ask yourself what triggered the emotional reaction but try to delay acting on it. Understanding why you’re being triggered will help you remain in control. When needed, give yourself permission to leave the situation, find a quiet place to breathe for as long as needed, and return when you’re feeling restored and calm.

Expectations

Unrealistic expectations is one of the most common causes of stress during the holidays. No family gathering is perfect and if you expect it should be, and the reality doesn’t match, you’re setting yourself up for inevitable disappointment. Consider the following ways to help you create a realistic approach to your holidays:

  • Don’t expect a Christmas Miracle. Remember, your family isn’t perfect, the brisket might be undercooked, the kids are going to fight, and it is okay. Embrace the messy moments of togetherness and recognize happy memories are made even when you burn the pie.
  • Just say no. Simplify the holidays by choosing the activities and gatherings that bring you more joy than stress. Prioritize what events you feel are reasonable for you to attend and don’t overcommit because you feel you should. If spending time with your family causes great amounts of stress it may be healthier to break from tradition altogether. Perhaps this year, instead of attending or hosting family gatherings, you take a vacation or spend the holiday with close friends.
  • Give the first gift to yourself. Self-care may seem like an indulgence during this busy time of year but it is essential to your physical and mental well-being. Don’t abandon healthy habits: nourish your body with exercise, good food, and plenty of rest. Choose not to numb yourself with alcohol as this can contribute to feelings of depression. If you’re feeling lonely or isolated spend time with supportive and caring people.

If the holidays make you feel out of control find ways to reclaim that control. Become aware of emotional triggers including unhappy memories and traumatic events that impact the holidays. Establish healthy boundaries and remember it is okay to say no. Choose to accept family members as they are and avoid conversations that can lead to conflict and distress. Finally, there is a difference between the “holiday blues” and more severe depression. If the holiday season passes and you are still feeling depressed or anxious it may be best to consult with a doctor. Balance Women’s Health providers help diagnose depression and help decide what treatments are right for you. Call (405) 378-2727 for an appointment.

“Families: hard, hard, hard, no matter how cherished and astonishing they may also be…At family gatherings where you suddenly feel homicidal or suicidal, remember that in half of all cases, it’s a miracle that this annoying person even lived. Earth is Forgiveness School. You might as well start at the dinner table. That way, you can do this work in comfortable pants.”  –Anne Lamott


Sources:

American Psychological Association (APA) survey: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2006/12/holiday-stress.aspx

Kraft TL, Pressman SD. Grin and bear it: the influence of manipulated facial expression on the stress response. Psychol Sci. 2012;23(11):1372-8.Epub 2012 Sep 24.