COPING WITH FAMILY STRESS DURING THE HOLIDAYS
To officially kick off this blog, I thought I’d start with a subject that everyone can relate to: family. As fall moves in and the leaves begin to drop, we start to think about holiday planning, which leads to how we will be spending time with our families (family of “origin” or “created” families). Regardless of whether you have a well functioning family or a more chaotic family, this time of the year can create stress.
We are told that family is important (family IS important) and should be our priority, but my experience as a therapist and my personal experience with being a part of a less-than-perfect family have given me some insight into how stressful this time of the year can be. Those of us who experience anxiety, fear, anger, and then of course guilt-because we “shouldn’t” feel this way about our own family (right?) – can become downright stressed during the holidays.
Life is complicated, and the complications don’t just stop because holidays are upon us. So, this time of year can be extra challenging for people who are experiencing pain and loss of all kinds. The tips below can help you navigate this time of year and direct you toward moments of calm in the storm. If you are a person who enjoys happy holidays and has a solid family, these items still can be helpful; think of them as ways to “be” during the “doing” holidays. For the rest of us, these tips can help us navigate the stressful waters of family holidays.
1. Spend time really thinking about what a great holiday would look like. Maybe you can’t create the whole picture, but if you don’t try for what you want you certainly won’t get there. (Maybe you don’t have to go to four family parties in one day?)
2. Once you have a picture of your ideal, look at how you can fit a few of those wishes into your plans. Start simple, and go big if you feel like it’s possible!
3. Make sure you carve out time just to be….whether it is drinking a cup of coffee in the morning or taking a walk sometime during the day. Try to slow things down. You can appreciate thinkgs more when you are not moving so fast.
4. Try to stay out of family drama…it is easy to get caught up in old patterns. You can’t change other people; you only can be responsible for choosing to not participate or to participate differently.
5. Breathe. Just be conscious of your breath and allow yourself to find some peace even when chaos is all around.
6. Find ways to connect with family members. If it isn’t working with one person, move on to the next. Try letting go of expectations that others will be interested in you or who you are; just be open to the other individual, curious about him or her. This curiosity can help make the time more joyful.
7. Look for the silver lining. Try to not focus on what is going wrong and instead put your focus on the things that are going well. We have a negativity bias in our brain and it is easier to see problems versus positives. Shifting that focus is hard work; the holidays can give you lots of practice with this skill. Think about it as brain training!
8. All families have a share of drama and issues; you are not alone. Say this to yourself over and over again this holiday season. Know that you are surrounded by others coping with similar things.
Finally, I’d like to take a moment to expand on tip #4, because it really holds the key to holiday survival. We spend a lot of time angry and frustrated with others, wishing they would just do something different – not drink as much, take a more active interest in who we are, stop fighting, etc. Utilizing the beginning of the serenity prayer can be helpful here: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” In my office and in my life I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about how we can’t make others do something different. As the holiday season gets closer and you start planning family parties and functions, take these words to heart and be the change that you want others to possess. You can choose not to react to Uncle Joe’s foolish behavior; you can choose to not engage in conversations that are moving towards arguments; you can drink less and be more positive. You only can change yourself and your own behavior. This is very difficulty work and you won’t do it with perfection, so utilize the tips above and remember if all else fails….find humor, laugh at your own inability to step out of the drama.