Family. The word is a charged one. It can conjure warm fuzzies — or a panic attack. Yet for better or worse, Thanksgiving kicks off the season of family time (in some cases, more family time than a girl can handle).
At first, I felt guilty and terrible for writing about the stress of dealing with family around the holidays. But then I noticed the American Psychological Association (APA) has an ENTIRE WEBSITE called “Holiday Stress Resource Center,” and I realized I was in good company. It turns out 62 percent of people experience elevated stress levels during the holiday season, partly due to interpersonal family dynamics. And women, who tend to do more domestic and “making other people happy” work, feel more stressed than men.
So. How can you keep your cool this time of year? I asked around (including my own family members) for advice, and here’s what I learned:
Step 1: Prep more than the turkey
- Practice positivity. Ahead of our parents’ visit to spend Thanksgiving with her in Florida, my sister, Jessica, told me: “I’m trying to prepare myself to be positive. I don’t want them to see or feel the negative things that are going on in my life.” Sure, it’s important to be real in your relationships with people, but it’s also OK to not want to share everything with them. It can be hard for the people who care about you to not weigh in on your challenges; often, they just want to be supportive. But sometimes you don’t want advice, sympathy or to be told to chill out. So, for self-preservation purposes: feel free to keep that shit to yourself and think happy thoughts before and during your encounters with family.
- Plan for multiple scenarios. My husband says he plans for various outcomes when he goes into any stressful situation. He’ll play out various scenarios in his head and rehearse his responses. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an answer prepared the next time someone asks you about the job you hate or when you’re getting married/having kids/buying a house/etc.?
- Come with talking points. I read this one in a post by Stella Blackmon on the lifestyle blog Cup of Jo: Write down a few conversation starters — observations, questions or things you’ve learned recently (like that the pilgrims did not really wear buckles on their hats and shoes) — to seed more interesting dialogue around the dinner table and fill those awkward silences that sometimes come after you run out of things to say about the food.
Step 2: Manage the big day
- Pick your battles. After a lifetime of practice, no one knows how to push your buttons better than family members. And we often do it without even noticing. For example, it caught me off guard when my sister told me she tries to stay neutral in conversations with me, to avoid confrontation: “I listen but I don’t always give my opinion if I disagree.” (Apparently I’m the argumentative one in our family.) I know some people love a lively debate. If that’s you, then by all means, have at it. But this post is about survival. And sometimes, for the sake of survival, it’s worth letting things slide, to save yourself the energy.
- Put yourself first: Marilyn Overmyer (Sarah’s mom), a therapist, suggests: “My advice to those whose families cause them stress is twofold: First, limit the time with them and don’t feel guilty about it. By limiting the time you spend with them, you are being good to yourself, and that is most important. The other advice is to be ‘breezy.’ It is a way to take control of situations that could potentially be difficult. You are ‘acting as if’ everything is good and you are just light as the breeze. Put on your teflon suit and let everything just roll right off you; be totally non-reactive. In both cases, you are taking the control of yourself back rather than letting situations (or people) control you.” (By the way, she manages a mental health clinic and confirmed that the holidays are the busiest and tensest time of year for them.)
- Sleep through it. This is one of my personal favorite strategies (though, honestly, I usually fall asleep by accident because I pulled a cooking all-nighter on Thanksgiving Eve). If all else fails, you can pass out on the couch in front of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or football game (go, Lions!). Then voilà. You wake up in time to say goodbyes and blame the food coma.
Step 3: Nurse your emotional (and maybe actual) hangover
- Rest up. My sister said that sometimes, “Holidays are kind of depressing. I guess because you build it up and then it’s over. So I get in a little bit of a funk afterward.” I asked what she does to reset. “I just try to wind down. Take a nap. I could lie and say I do yoga after. But I don’t do that. It’s a nice thought, though.”
- Give thanks to yourself. You got through it! Let’s call it a victory and pat ourselves on the back, shall we?
And finally, if holiday shopping stress is getting you down — check out our holiday gift guide to shop 13 women-owned businesses.
What’d we miss? Feel free to share your best holiday survival tips in the comments — we’d love to hear about them.
Originally published Nov. 20, 2018. Updated Nov. 26, 2019