Surviving the Holidays

By Farah Hussain Baig, LCSW

It’s the holiday season, and whether it’s our gifts, travel plans, or year-end goals, this time of glad tidings tends to elicit a lot of stress. One of the most common stressors surrounding the holidays is spending time with family. Not all family members, just the difficult ones-the critical parent, the inappropriate aunt, or the over-bearing cousin. These interactions can create anxiety and consume a significant amount of emotional energy. Here are few tips that can help you survive the holidays and get you through to a happy and emotionally healthy New Year.

Be Mindful. In preparation for any encounter where you might struggle with a difficult person, one of the most important skills to learn is awareness of your physiological reactions. When we encounter a difficult person or situation our body enters a state of hyperarousal. Our heart rate escalates, our muscles tense up, and our temperature rises. Learning to identify this internal reaction to stress can help you control your emotional response to it. Pay attention to what you are feeling as well as any corresponding thoughts. Before responding in this state of hyperarousal, take a moment to collect yourself, along with some deep cleansing breaths. Managing your emotions effectively can help keep a bad situation from getting worse.
Have a Plan. If you can, identify topics that might be “dangerous territory.” Whether it’s personal, political, or anything in between these potentially “hot-button” topics can be triggers for a negative physiological reaction. Given what you know about your own reactions to these types of situations, mentally prepare yourself for triggers that may occur. Think about the situation as it could unfold, the conversations that could happen, or maybe the difficult questions you know someone will ask. Have some short responses ready. If possible, try to redirect any uncomfortable topics by subtly changing the subject or leaving the room.
Use Assertive Communication. When faced with a challenging situation, how you communicate your thoughts and feelings can set the tone for the interaction. Assertive communication involves choosing words carefully and speaking honestly without too much self-disclosure. A simple example of this would be, “I see your point, but we’ll have to agree to disagree.” Another strategy can be to stay neutral, positive and be on good behavior. As the old adage goes, “if you don’t have anything positive to say, don’t say anything at all.” If you do end up getting caught in a difficult situation where you need to assert yourself, be prepared to follow your words up with action.
Set Boundaries. Setting appropriate boundaries can be difficult, especially when close family and friends are involved. Doing so can elicit an array of emotions including guilt which, although is normal, can feel very uncomfortable. Part of setting boundaries is managing the interaction with the difficult individual. Identify the people and the circumstances you may find yourself in that can be triggering. If possible, keep time spent together and general interaction short and to a minimum. Assert yourself when you need to. Your comfort and safety comes first. Be clear and prepared to enforce consequences if boundaries are crossed and stick with it. Consistency is a key component to maintaining boundaries. If you don’t honor the boundaries you create why should someone else honor them.
Practice Self Care. Taking good care of yourself, physically, emotionally, spiritually, etc is good practice for everyday life. It’s especially necessary when faced with the challenges associated with the hustle and bustle of the holidays, as well as, difficult people and situations. Make sure that you are getting enough sleep, exercise, and eating right. Addressing basic needs can help keep your “emotional fuel tank” full. Tap into your support network. Having a partner or a good friend by your side for support or to intervene if a situation gets out of control can be invaluable. Journaling before, during, and after the visit is another strategy to help keep you grounded by providing an outlet for your emotions. If you are faced with a challenging situation, don’t be afraid to go for a nice long walk. Fresh air and some physical space can also help make you feel grounded again.
Enjoy Yourself. Regardless of who or what might get in your way, it’s the holidays, and they only come around once a year so enjoy yourself. If a situation seems too overwhelming and isn’t worth the emotional energy, there’s always the option to not attend. It is healthy and esteem-building to give yourself permission to say “no” to an invitation. Enjoy the time you have with the people who matter most. Focusing on the positive and being grateful can help redirect negative thoughts or energy and it’s a great way to ring in the New Year.