My extended family was recently in town visiting. As nine of us entered the crowded Bonnie Brae Ice Cream store we had pre-agreed to buy nine single sugar cones. That would allow us to move through the crowded space and make our choices quickly. Each person could pick their flavor, take their cone and exit the store leaving room for others, and one person could easily pay. As we approached the counter, one by one, my family started deviating from the plan and I felt myself becoming distressed. I looked over at my nephew getting a double-scoop waffle cone dipped in chocolate, and then saw my father-in-law ordering two large waffle cones. I felt myself losing the joy of the moment. I was struck by how quickly a fun outing to the ice cream store caused me to feel such tension.
As we approach the holidays, we anticipate more family togetherness. A national survey found that 36 percent of Americans would rather be anywhere but home for the holidays. In contrast, 26 percent of adults say that the best gift they could receive this holiday season would be having their family live closer. The thought of spending time with family and friends during the holidays may conjure up mixed emotions for many people.
There are many reasons why being with the people we love can cause us to feel stressed and emotionally out of control. High expectations, excess food and alcohol, tight-knit quarters, and too many opinions, can cause us to feel frenzied. Here are some tips for keeping your cool as the holidays approach:
Set Limits: “No” is a complete sentence. Feel free to say no to staying up late just because everyone else is. No to participating in political conversations that you know will just make you feel angry. No to engaging in gossip or negative talk. No to meeting up with the other relatives that will anger or frustrate you. Be aware of, and stick to your limits. This includes knowing what you can and can’t handle, and extends to spending on gifts in response to feeling obligated by others.
Have a Strategy: Be aware that when you are with your parents and siblings it’s easy to revert to familiar roles. Families are systems and when they are reunited it seems that everyone knows their place. Perhaps you become the conforming little girl or the bossy older brother. Tell yourself ahead of time that this is not who you are any more and you don’t have to play that part. When you know someone is going to say something that always irritates you, plan a response ahead of time. This shields you from the pain and keeps you in control.
Install Humor: As you gaze at your family, learn to laugh at their idiosyncrasies. Look to your spouse for a private smile or giggle. Realize that there really are no “normal” families. Every family has its characters and that is what makes us human. Rent some funny movies and watch them together. The shared laughter will create bonds between you and distract from the negativity. Some of my favorites are “What About Bob?” and “Waking Ned Divine.”
Self Care: Take time out away from family members to nurture yourself. Take a bubble bath or hot tub. Steal away for some alone time (napping, reading a really good book, or listening to soothing music). Try not to overeat. Limit your alcohol, fat and sugar intake. Exercise is probably the best thing you can do because it helps lower blood pressure, allows you to refocus your thoughts, and releases endorphins – the body’s natural painkiller.
Consider Getting a Hotel: This allows you much more control over the situation…the money spent may be a wise investment. You will have freedom to come and go at will, and have a place to escape when you see yourself falling into old patterns, or engaging in destructive talk or behaviors.
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How do you keep from getting stressed over the holidays?
*Originally published in the Columbine Courier December 2006