Holiday Stress

by Leonard Holmes, Ph.D.

Getting together with family is something that most of us look forward to. Thanksgiving and Christmas are the biggest family holidays in the United States, but birthdays, Easter, anniversaries, and funerals are also times which bring extended families together. Other cultures have other traditions, but many cultures place an emphasis on the importance of family. Some families have annual "family reunions" which serve to reunite family members who are separated by miles.

These family times are dreaded by some because of the memories which they bring back. If you grow up in a family dominated by an alcoholic, a family get-together may serve as a reminder of all of the bad times you had together. If a family member was abusive toward you, then a "family time" may stir up feelings associated with the abuse.

This can occur long after the abuser is dead.

We are bombarded with images of happy families enjoying each other, especially around the holidays. The smell of a Christmas tree, the sights and muffled sounds of the first snowfall, the smell of candles, carols being sung - like family get-togethers, these seasonal sights and sounds and smells stir pleasant feelings in most of us, as we recall what it was like growing-up. They also stir up less-positive feelings in many people from abusive families. The picture can be complicated by Seasonal Depression which also kicks-in during the winter.

Here are some ways to manage family-related holiday stress:

  • Drink in moderation (or don't drink at all) during a holiday get-together. Alcohol tends to magnify whatever emotion you are having at the moment; and it can cloud your judgment.
  • If a parent or other family member gives you mixed messages (positive on the surface with negative non-verbals, for example) respond to the verbal part only. Pretend the message (such as a sarcastic "I'm so happy to see you") was written on a piece of paper and reply as if they mean exactly what the words say. This can encourage more honest communication in the long run.
  • Don't expect people to change. Maybe they will, but your best course of action is to take them at face value and build whatever relationship you can based on that.
  • Start a new family tradition. Many young families feel pulled between two (or more) sets of relatives who all want them to visit. Put in a token visit with relatives if you want to, but save some time to start your own traditions with just yourself and your partner and any children you might have.
  • If you are going to a get-together at a place which holds unpleasant memories take a piece of your current home with you. A favorite rock, an acorn from the oak in the back yard, a book you love, or a stuffed animal can be powerful reminders that you are just visiting. Your home is elsewhere and you will be returning.
  • Talk with your partner or a close friend about how you are feeling. Sharing feelings usually helps us process them and let go of them.