18 Ways to Avoid Family Stress During the Holidays

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In theory, nothing sounds nicer or more wholesome than spending a few cozy days with family making holiday cookies, listening to seasonal tunes, and — of course — bonding. But between Mom’s ongoing vendetta against your sister’s significant other, Aunt Sarah’s constant need to be the center of attention, Dad’s grudge against his brother for something no one can remember, and the pressure to get everyone the perfect gift, the holidays can be downright stressful. Whether journeying home for a weeklong family-time marathon or hosting a few family or friends for a night, we’ve rounded up survival tips to make this occasion truly the most magical time of the year.

Relax (Don't Do It) — Your Action Plan

Let It Go. For many families, the holidays are the only time everyone is in the same place for more than a hot second. What better time to bring up a forgotten birthday, an unpaid debt, or a longstanding childhood feud, right? Um, no. If you can’t let go of an old grudge (and please, please try), don’t turn a holiday gathering into an airing of grievances. If forgiving someone just isn’t possible at the moment, put on a smile and focus on other matters.

Stand Tall. Being around family has a way of making us revert to our childhood selves. Resist the urge to whine at Mom, fight with siblings about the remote, and, most importantly, defer to others about your own life. Grandma might not approve of your job or lifestyle choices, but when you’re an adult your life is your business. Don’t be afraid to stick up for yourself.

Go With the Flow. Someone forgot the dip, a baby cousin wailed through dinner, and the dogs ate the leftover roasted chicken. A big holiday gathering can bring out the control freak in many people, but resist the urge to make everything Pinterest-worthy. Relax and breathe, and remember that next year no one will remember the time you dropped the Christmas pudding (Okay, we can’t promise that. They might remember. But it’ll be a lot more fun if you laugh along — because c’mon, it’s pretty funny).

Be Self-ish. Nobody likes to hear it, but each person can only control his or her own behavior. Stop trying to make Mom more cosmopolitan or Grandpa less nostalgic. The holidays will be much less strained for everyone if each person only worries about his or her own actions. Of course, with a meddling family this can sometimes feel impossible, but focus on being your best self.  

Privacy Please. Don’t be afraid to answer a prying question with “none of your beeswax.” Every family member doesn’t need to know every detail of your life, especially if it’s something you’re not comfortable sharing. So, sorry Cousin Jenny, I’m not going to talk about why I quit my job.

Act Like Santa. Getting everything on a holiday wish list is great, but keep expectations within reason. Avoid disappointment by focusing on the act of giving and people’s reactions to those gifts. Better yet, donate time and money to a worthier cause than your shoe collection.

Get Moving. When the urge to run out the door strikes, listen to it! Heading out for a walk or jog in the brisk air can improve any mood and give you some much-needed space from pesky relatives. Plus, getting blood pumping can reduce stress hormones like cortisol in the body.

Do It Yourself. Taking on a specific project or responsibility can give you a boost of energy and motivation to do something besides watch reality TV while counting the hours until you can leave. Instead of loafing around in the kitchen, stay busy by helping with chores like collecting cans for a food drive, taking the recycling to the dump, or restocking the fridge.

Put the Bottle Down. Sipping on spiked eggnog or a hot buttered rum is part of the fun, but it’s no surprise that alcohol + crowded rooms + family grudges = a whole lot of drama. Alcohol lowers inhibitions and makes some people more aggressive, so making sure no one gets too friendly with the wine bottle is a good way to keep the peace.

Follow the Leader. When someone else is running the show, stay on the sidelines. Nobody likes a know-it-all cousin trying to steal their thunder, so let Uncle Jim teach Dad how to carve the ham, even if you have a better technique up your sleeve. Besides, trying to take on too much is a recipe for a stressful holiday meltdown.

Mind Over Matter: Feeling really overwhelmed? Find a private space and do some basic meditation to get back on track.  Mindfulness meditation can help reduce stress and anxiety. Check out these 10 ways to meditate every day.

Mix it Up. If something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to suggest an alternative. If everybody just picks at the traditional roast goose at Christmas dinner, try chicken or ham or even a show-stopping vegetarian dish. Just because someone always hosts the big event or brings a certain dish doesn’t mean they want to do so indefinitely. When planning for the holidays, make sure no one feels forced to carry on a tradition they don’t particularly like.

Zip It. As the old saying goes, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. Let old conflicts gather dust and don’t create new ones by haranguing relatives and kvetching about little things like who brewed the weak coffee.

Positive Pals. Hang out with people who make you feel good about yourself. Spend the most time with supportive relatives and just catch up briefly with others. There’s no reason to be constantly surrounded by negative influencers. And if a conversation is driving you bonkers, simply stand up and leave the room.

The Power of No. Take a lesson from the classic holiday movie “Home Alone” and play to your strengths. No one can do everything, so don’t feel guilty about saying “no.” If you hate cooking, don’t let yourself get roped into hosting a festive dinner. Bring wine or decorations to someone else’s party instead! 

Pace Yourself. If you’re scheduled to attend two or three holiday parties every day, consider taking a step back. When seasonal commitments pile up, it’s easy to wind up overbooked. Though friends and family will miss you if you ditch an event, it’s important to take care of yourself first and foremost. Set some boundaries around what you do and do not have energy for, and stick to them to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

Keep it Real. Holiday treats are great, but you’ll probably feel better if you don’t drink eggnog like it’s water. As tough as it may be when traveling, try to stick to some semblance of a healthy routine. Allow yourself those holiday indulgences, but remember to also eat fruits and veggies and keep active for your own peace of mind. Incorporating aspects of normal routines can make that weeklong stay in a childhood bedroom a little easier.

Love Is All Around. At the end of the day, remember what the holidays are really about. Family members meddle because they love you, annoying traditions exist to bring people together, and everyone (even grumpy salespeople) just wants to be home for the holidays. When family-induced stress threatens to crush you, take a minute to think about the bigger picture and give thanks for what what’s often taken for granted. Focus on what’s going right or went right in the past year instead of what’s wrong. The holidays are a great time to practice gratitude.

Special thanks to Greatist Experts Jessica Magidson and Michael Mantell for their help and contributions to this article. What are your favorite stress-busting tips for staying happy (and sane) during the holidays? Share in the comments below or tweet the author at @SophBreene.

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About the Author
Sophia Breene
After spending eight years as a high school and college athlete, I'm learning how to maintain a healthy lifestyle on my own (aka without a coach...

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