Well Being

Holiday Stress Management: How To Handle Family That Drives You Nuts

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Family holidays are filled with laughing children, beautiful food, decorations…and stress. Yep, the holidays are here, and the anxiety and emotions that come with them can make you want to punch the nearest unsuspecting relative. If your parents, siblings or in-laws tend to drive you a bit nuts during this time of year, you are most certainly not alone. But there are healthier stress management strategies than wishing the holidays away while reaching for another cocktail (although, admittedly, taking down your bossy older sister does have a certain appeal, right?), so we spoke to a few experts to help you get through Thanksgiving–and the rest of this season's family holiday celebrations.

Whether it's the desire to create the perfect holiday, find the perfect presents or be the perfect host, the holidays can zap your energy. So can the thought of of spending time with people who are critical of you, don't like your spouse, or are less than accepting of you and your lifestyle. Not to mention worrying if Uncle Joe will get drunk (again) and ruin everything. Divorces, inter-faith marriages, hormonal teenagers and medaling in-laws can also wreak havoc on the peaceful, relaxing, idealistic holiday that's dancing in our head.

“Sometimes, in fact, the holidays bring back unhappy memories from childhood or put people in a position to be around toxic relatives,” adds Karyl McBride, PhD, LMFT
Author of: Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers.

All of this is enough to drive you nuts.

So why do we let ourselves get so stressed out over the holidays? And more importantly, why do we continue to let our family do this to us year after year?

It can be as simple as having to deal with family members who insist on having everything their way or “how it has always been”, says Licensed Psychologist Elaine Ducharme, Ph.D. Past conflicts can also resurface, abusive relationships that have remained unhealed can still hurt, and controversial topics can set off angry confrontations, she explains.

Add to that the fact that we, the women, are often left to shoulder the bulk of the holiday responsibilities, and it's a wonder that any of our family survives another year.

“Even with the gender roles being more fluid, women still seem to end up with the bulk of the work,” explains Ducharme. And how do we handle that? We acknowledge our feeelings, of course (not always in a productive and healthy way though). Men, on the other hand, are more likely to hold those emotions inside and act them out in anger or excessive alcohol use (which is not exactly healthy either).

“Stress makes people ill, causes them to be irritable and cranky, and can cause people to act in selfish ways,” adds McBride. “We see more road rage, more anger, more frustration with customer service or waiting in lines, and more entitlement the closer we get to deadlines for holidays.”

So instead of lashing out and saying things we know we'll regret later, what is the right way to handle this stress–and prove, once and for all that we're not still that little girl in pigtails who stomps off to her room when the going gets tough? Here are some stress management tips from our experts:

1. Know what's important. Remember the true meaning of the holidays, advises Ducharme. “People rarely remember whether your table or decorations were perfect. They even forget who gave them what gift. But people do remember experiences such as baking together and even being silly while cleaning up the kitchen together,” she says. “My kids remember the black olives they and their cousins always put on their fingers during holiday meals. I remember endless games of monopoly with my cousins.”

2. Refocus. Try to remind yourself that the holidays are not all about spending money. Instead, refocus on spending time with loved ones by shortening your shopping list, creating a realistic budget for gifts and reminding your children that the holidays aren’t about expensive toys. “This reframing can help you better manage your stress about spending and redefine the celebration around what’s truly important,” says Ducharme.

3. Don't be a control freak. “Give up on trying to control the outcome of the holidays and take it a day at a time,” advises McBride. “Realize you can only control you and your feelings and not what others do or feel.”

4. Let go of the perfect gift. We all stress out over buying the perfect gift for family and friends, but don't. Instead, ask your loved ones what they really want for gifts and follow that lead, recommends McBride. “Remember the lists we made for Santa? That worked well!”

5. Use the “Thumb Trick.” Think of something very funny that always makes you laugh and hold onto your thumb as you recall the event, advises Ducharme. Then let go of your thumb and think about something that makes you sad or angry. Do this 10 times in a row only holding your thumb when you are thinking of the funny event. “You will now be able to lighten your mood and laugh even in stressful situations by simply grabbing your thumb,” she promises. “Go ahead and try it. It really works.”

6. Set boundaries. Know where you want the boundaries to be with family members who are known to cross your lines. “Be kind but firm when things are not OK with you,” says McBride. “Do what you need to do for you, and you will be in a better place to allow others to do that too.”

7. Be grateful. Putting ourselves in a space of gratitude can put things in perspective and relieve stress about things that don't matter. McBride even recommends keeping a holiday grateful journal and writing in it every day.

8. Be healthy. Above all, take good care of yourself. Exercise daily, sleep as much as you need to and eat the healthiest foods you can. “And when you want to say ‘I can’t, there is too much to do, be a rebel and take a nap,” says McBride.

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