• As fall gives way to winter, the holiday season is in full swing, but holiday stress prevents many of us from fully enjoying our celebrations.
  • While our budgets can fall under strain during this time of year, one of the leading causes of holiday stress is dysfunctional family dynamics.
  • Surveys show it’s difficult for many of us to spend more than 4 hours at a time with our relatives. And with so many different personalities all under one roof, it’s important to find ways to cope.
  • For a stress-free holiday season with family, avoid self-medicating with alcohol, fibbing to relatives when it’s unnecessary, partaking in ideological verbal debates, or passing judgment on members of your family.
  • And if you’re overwhelmed at the thought of being together with so many relatives under one roof, remember that it’s more than alright to celebrate the season with friends, neighbors, or even alone, if you wish.

The holiday season is a time to make merry, reconnect with family and friends, and find something to be grateful for. But if you’re feeling like the holidays actually stress you out more than other parts of the year, you aren’t alone.

With tight budgets that flex to handle dinners, parties, and presents for everyone, our dwindling finances and overbooked schedules may eat away at that fragile sense of holiday spirit. Holiday stress can also be largely compounded by dysfunctional family dynamics, which unfortunately can’t magically disappear during the most wonderful time of the year. But can one reclaim their holiday spirit, in spite of these obstacles? Certainly, although like anything else worthwhile, it requires some purposeful effort to be successful. Learning how to change your mindset from “dealing with family” to “spending quality time with loved ones” can be difficult, but stressed as we might be, there’s still an opportunity for us to cut back on the cynicism. 

The holiday season, for better or worse, can be seen as an earnest, heartfelt attempt for a large conglomeration of very different people (it’s called family) to get along, simply for the sake of trying. If you ultimately choose to take part in the festivities, doing so healthily is the best option. Here’s how to do just that, without giving up too much of your sanity in the process. 

What Causes Holiday Stress?

A 2018 report found that 77% of Americans feel like the holidays are the most stressful time of the year. From family gatherings to present shopping, there’s certainly a lot to do––making the why behind holiday stress not so surprising. So then, it’s possible that our stress is compounded by a sense of martyrdom, a feeling that there’s nothing we can do to avoid the inherently overwhelming qualities of the holiday season that slap us in the face like an unavoidable snowball. 

However, one specific stressor takes the cake during the holidays: spending time with family. In 2019, a poll found that most people can’t handle more than 4 hours at a time with family during the holiday season. Seventy-five percent of those polled indicated that they consistently have to take measures to avoid their relatives, which might include:

  • Avoiding gatherings altogether
  • Secluding themselves in a quiet room during parties
  • Fabricating excuses in order to leave an event early 

The culprit behind our flakiness? Unrealistic expectations for holiday cheer are what most experts pin widespread holiday stress on––another form of toxic positivity. Good food and drink can only go so far; then eventually, the novelty of decorations, seeing your family, and giving and receiving gifts may wear off. 

If you’re consistently anxious about meeting up with loved ones, it’s not just the holidays that are bringing out those feelings. What you’re experiencing, under the surface, are likely the same dysfunctional family dynamics that bother you the rest of the year. 

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Navigating Dysfunctional Family Dynamics: 6 Pointers

If you’re sick of feeling bogged down by holiday stress, it could be helpful to try out a few pointers at your next family gathering. This winter could offer you a unique opportunity to overcome your irritability and impatience with your relatives. Still, whatever day of the year it is, try out these tips to avoid the cloying sensation of being trapped or obligated when surrounded by family. Remember: 

  • Not to rely on alcoholic drinks to get you through dinner, a party, or another type of gathering: The great social assistor, alcohol lowers our inhibitions and makes it easier for us to speak our mind, and avoid social anxiety. Have a few, but when you feel a buzz coming on, determine whether you really need to drink more, and why. If you’re enjoying yourself responsibly as an adult wanting to let go a little bit, go for it. But if you’re miserable being around your relatives and are self-medicating to tolerate them, it may not be the best choice. 
  • It’s okay to set boundaries when a relative is asking overly personal questions about your life: “Consider setting a verbal boundary by kindly explaining that you would rather not talk about “it”, or a physical boundary by excusing yourself from the room/conversation,” says Emily Simonian, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Head of Learning at Thriveworks.
  • It’s important to pick your battles: Sharing the same genes doesn’t translate to sharing the same political, spiritual, or ethical views. While it can feel vilifying to engage in an argument with a family member over our ideological beliefs, these conversations can often get heated, quickly. Don’t get baited into a verbal battle; instead, take mental note of the potential for a fight, and take space from that person until you’re both back at baseline. 
  • The golden rule: Let your relatives be themselves if you want the same freedom in return; our idea of what’s healthy, correct, or enjoyable will always be subjective by nature. And often, holiday gatherings are the first time we’ve seen all of our family members in a year; trying to make accurate judgments about their lifestyle, household, or other choices isn’t necessary (or possible) unless there’s something clearly wrong. As adults, we aren’t responsible for the behavior of others, besides our children, if we have any. Fixating on what bothers you about your family will drive you up the wall. Does your own behavior fall in line with your expectations of others?
  • You don’t have to spend the holidays with family: When your family is unwilling to acknowledge dysfunctional family dynamics or spending the holidays with them is just too stressful, it’s probably best to celebrate elsewhere. Don’t procrastinate, though; reach out to coworkers, friends, or neighbors for company and solace instead of spending the holidays alone (unless you want to spend the holidays alone—and that’s completely okay, too!). Your family can be whomever you decide it to be: What matters most is a shared feeling of respect and camaraderie. 

Gift Yourself a Stress-Free Holiday Season

The holiday season brings on fond memories, fun festivities, and a cheerful aesthetic, that, on the surface, seems like it should draw us in without any hesitation. But then gradually, a few Christmas songs get overplayed, and the corny commercials (who gets a brand new car for Christmas?) get old, too. If you feel pressured to be all smiles, and aren’t, you might even feel guilty. But dysfunctional family dynamics, financial burdens, and a hectic schedule are already issues that many of us face year-round. 

This winter, let the holiday season serve as a reminder that we can’t change our family, but we can change the way that we respond to their comments, antics, and demeanor. It’s possible that some of our frustrations during the season of giving can be reduced when we put things into perspective and cut our family a bit of a break.