Nathan Leslie, author of the book, “Hurry Up and Relax,” says journaling can help relieve stress during the holidays.
Photo courtesy of Nathan Leslie
Later this month, Thanksgiving will usher in the holiday season, family gatherings and expectations of celebrations that are reminiscent of Currier and Ives-type scenes. For those who deal with difficult family members, be they cousins, siblings, in-laws or outlaws, the most wonderful time of year can be met with dread. Having a few sanity-saving strategies can help get us through the not-so-silent holiday nights.
“Often, those closest to us can unfortunately spark the most amount of stress” said Nathan Leslie, Professor of Creative Writing at Northern Virginia Community College and author of the book “Hurry Up and Relax.”
Focusing on one’s own behaviors and responses rather than those we find difficult can offer a sense of empowerment. “That’s because in the end you cannot control how anyone else acts during this time, or ever,” said Lorente. “The only thing that you really can control is how you react and respond to different people and situations. Being aware of your behavior and changing your mindset might be the best — and only way to survive the holiday drama this season.”
Whether it’s a feeling of obligation or hope for holiday cheer, before you head over the river and through the woods, know the reason for your trip. “First know why you are choosing to be around family members who might be difficult,” said Carolyn Lorente, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Northern Virginia Community College. “This helps you to take ownership and control of the situation. I think that a lot of the negative feelings stem from feeling out of control, obligated, and frustrated.”
Setting boundaries and having an exit strategy can be sanity-saving. “[For example,] “when we start talking about topics such as my parenting style, or my politics, or my hair, I will leave the room,” said Lorente. “Not with anger but with a sense that I am control of me not of my family member.”
A family ally can offer support or an exit strategy if family gatherings turn sour. “You can even develop a code word or phrase you can say to prompt your ally to intervene, politely interrupt, or help you get out of the situation promptly,” said Joanne Bagshaw, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Montgomery College. “A family ally is also a good person to have for support.”
For those who know that difficult family situations are unavoidable, set time limits. “Plan ahead to organize your time spent in this situation, and avoid staying at family members’ homes if your relationship is challenging,” said Bagshaw. “Also, structure your time, make sure there's not a lot of downtime that can lead to awkward conversations.”
Choosing to give attention to the positive aspects of one’s familial relationships can help diffuse tension, suggests Lorente. “Focus on gratitude, fun, and the good things that this time may bring,” she said. “You and your Mom may not agree on certain adult issues but look at what a great grandmother she is to your children.”
Putting pen to paper can help relieve stress. “Journaling is an excellent way to relieve stress and make sense out of chaos,” said Leslie. “Writing…can be useful in giving mental order to the disorientation that the holidays might bring.”
Visualize family events going well. Positive thoughts lead to positive feelings, advises Jerome Short, Ph.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor of Psychology at George Mason University. “Be curious instead of critical,” he said. “Wonder how others are thinking and feeling, and why,” said Short. “Give others the benefit of the doubt.”
“Wait before speaking if you have negative thoughts,” continued Short. “Take a deep breath, visualize a favorite place, or walk away if you might regret what you say in the moment.”