The holidays are often portrayed as a time of happiness surrounded by family and friends, but for some it can be a more difficult time. Especially in times of pandemic, when social distancing may cause physical separation, communication can become more strained causing feelings of isolation, loneliness and guilt. Within the household, interactions with family members may become more stressful as we navigate this holiday season.

Dealing with relatives can be difficult. While family often brings us comfort and love, they can also intentionally or unintentionally hurt and upset us. This can cause internal conflicts and feelings of guilt. The stress that one experiences from these feelings can contribute to bouts of anxiety and, possibly, depression. Though family get-togethers may be limited to those in our household or may not happen in-person, the increased intimacy of these events, virtual or otherwise, can produce greater tensions.

The emotions we feel can be amplified because our expectation is that we will experience joy and peace. When, instead, we feel anxiety and depression, the disappointment can be overwhelming and very hurtful. Further, if the buildup of emotions results in overt displays of anger in the presence of our relatives, these tensions can create a strain on these relationships that may have long term negative effects.

So, while family events may not be completely avoided on the holidays, there are ways to help tolerate particularly annoying relatives and survive without long term tensions. Here are five things we can do:

1. Develop positive narratives

When anticipating interactions with people who may annoy us, it is common to create scenarios in our head that reinforce those feelings of annoyance. We may recall past interactions with that person that were particularly troublesome. Instead, recall any interaction with that person which was positive or enjoyable. It will be more beneficial to dwell on those positive thoughts.

2. Practice gracious responses

If you do find yourself mentally anticipating someone making a hurtful comment, you could rehearse how you may respond in a way that is more gracious than the comment the other person made. This will increase the likelihood that you will not respond in anger, lower whatever tensions may be created by that person’s comments and help you feel better about yourself because you chose to be the bigger person.

3. Take time outs

In advance of the family event, think through ways that you will control your own feelings of agitation and irritability when interacting with difficult relatives. Practice taking deep breaths before the family gathering, during other stressful situations. The more you practice the better you will get at using relaxation techniques to calm your nerves. Also plan on stepping outside for air or taking a brief walk if you feel tensions are growing at a family gathering. This may also lower your own anxiety and increase your tolerance of the situation.

4. Monitor your alcohol intake

When we are stressed, we often increase our alcohol intake in an attempt to relax. However, this is only a short-term solution. With increased alcohol intake we often become disinhibited in our reactions to situations. This may lead to saying something to an annoying family member that we will regret later. Know what your limits are and make a pact with yourself to keep your intake of alcoholic beverages within those limits.

5. Wait until tomorrow to vent

When a family member or friend says something that hurts us, we may have the impulse to take another person aside and vent our feelings in that moment. This will only continue to decrease our tolerance of the annoying person and increase the tensions at that gathering. Instead, wait until another day to express how we feel to someone we trust.

Seeking Professional Help

One may not immediately think of seeking a professional counselor or therapist to help us with anxiety or depression triggered by friends or relatives during the holidays. However, an objective perspective from someone trained in the dynamics of family issues and effective communication skills may be exactly what we need. Also, a trained counselor or therapist can also help us develop coping skills that can be effective in dealing with relational stressors during the holidays.

The professional counselors and therapists at Thriveworks would be happy to help you manage your holiday stress in-person or online. If you need stress management or family help during the holidays, don’t hesitate to reach out.


Greg Handel, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and the owner of Thriveworks offices in Franklin, MA, Amherst, MA; West Springfield, MA; and Wilbraham, MA. He has more than 35 years of experience providing positive life support for individuals, couples, and families.