The Christmas song goes, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” This statement can certainly be true. This is the time of year when many take the time to be with loved ones, family, and friends and reflect on what they are grateful for. It’s the time when many of us indulge in good food while listening to our favorite holiday tunes. It’s a joyful time to gather and be part of that holiday spirit. I enjoy the sound of the clinking of glasses, and boisterous conversations, while being surrounded by beautiful holiday decor in my cozy kitchen. This is the time of the year when desserts practically come with every meal if you wish!

It’s also a time of overeating, overdrinking, and unwanted and unsolicited advice from family members. It’s a time of overspending, long lines at stores, limited parking, and the frustration of things being sold out. In the Pacific Northwest, it’s the time of the year when we find ourselves ducking into sheltered areas to keep out of the elements of Mother Nature herself.

Holidays with family can be chaotic, stressful, and overwhelming, but it can also be a beautiful time to be together despite all of our differences, insecurities, and shortcomings.”

I talk often about my adult son Brian who is now 30. He has special needs, and he’s truly my greatest teacher in life. Recently, he had a hellacious day at Providence Hospital. He had six hours of various doctor appointments of being examined, poked, and prodded. At the end of the day, he frustratedly announced, “It’s not necessarily the happiest time of the year like the song says.” Brian explained that he finds that it’s a time when he compares his family to other families. He wonders if other people are really as happy as they make themselves appear. Sharing more, he said that sometimes when the room is so full of people during the holidays with strangers, he feels alone. With a sigh, he concluded that he really wanted to have a quiet dinner and skip our large family dinner after the day he had. I was touched by his genuine honesty and told him he was not alone in his feelings.

Stress during the holidays

The reality is, we all have stress around the holidays, even if we do not celebrate them. The holidays can be intense because they are often filled with elevated expectations of excitement, joy, and happiness. When these expectations are unmet, it can bring up emotions of sadness, loneliness, and disappointment. 

We do not know the true nature of everyone’s emotions when they walk into a room during this time. Some may have financial burdens, health issues, grief from the remembrance of a loved one passed, mad about the traffic, dread of being with family, fear of a relative drinking too much, or like my son, Brian, just wanting to be alone after a tough day.

I went over with Brian who was coming to dinner. A cousin landed from Germany that day, and my sister-in-law flew in from Jordan. My sister and niece took the train from Montana. Siblings and their spouses would be coming after a long day of work. I reminded Brian that probably everyone would be tired, but they were all making the time to be together. Most likely each family member would be walking into the room with their own set of struggles. When we are in the thick of our own problems it’s hard to step outside ourselves to observe the needs of others. Sometimes it just feels like we are the only ones suffering.

Managing stressful social gatherings

There are a few things I do to help when in stressful social situations.

Physical techniques

  • Give yourself permission to walk away from negative people.
  • When encountering a toxic overbearing personality, kindly walk away and chat with another person. Say nothing to their response, smile, or see if the host needs help. 
  • A quick walk or step outside to decompress your frustrations is a fast way to reset.
  • The bathroom can be a fast place to collect yourself if feeling anxious.
  • If possible, encourage moments to laugh with others. A good belly laugh breaks up the anxiety you might be holding in your body.
  • Smile.
  • Utilize tapping exercises on pressure points. They are discrete and very helpful for anxiety.

Mental techniques

  • Remember one person’s opinion of you does not make it accurate. It’s just their opinion which means nothing unless you choose it to be.
  • Be aware that alcohol can amplify your emotions so be aware of how much you are drinking.

Proactive techniques

  • Don’t sit next to those who trigger you.
  • Practice deep breathing when you’re going into a situation where you might be anxious.
  • Gossip or mean-spiritedness is not a good offense. Choose to be kind and loving with your words before you gather with other people.
  • Take care of your health before you attend an event by hydrating and having a snack to avoid ‘hangry’ behavior.
  • It’s helpful to know that overbearing or toxic personalities most likely will not be accepting of your opinions. It’s best to choose how you will react if triggered.

Everything will work out

Your thoughts and expectations can be swirling in the time leading up to the holidays with family, but reminding yourself that everything will work out, whether in that moment or at another time can help to put things in perspective. 

For Brian, our conversation in the car took a turn after he ruminated on what I said in silence while rubbing his head. He finally spoke and said, “Well, let’s put on a smile. I’m so glad that the holidays only happen once a year. Two would be too much for everyone.” When we got out of the car, he said, “Ok, I’m smiling with a funny kind of excitement to see everyone.” 

To be honest, I was kind of annoyed with him in a mother kind of way when he first expressed not wanting to attend our dinner. My mind was preoccupied that I marinated the chicken too long, anxious to get the table set, wash up, and make myself look presentable for guests and on top of it, his health. His change of heart reminded me that everything will be ok. We can’t control the feelings and emotions of others but can do our best to control ours.  Holidays with family can be chaotic, stressful, and overwhelming, but it can also be a beautiful time to be together despite all of our differences, insecurities, and shortcomings. 

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