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Reducing the Stress of Family Gatherings


December 15, 2020 | Published by

The ongoing pandemic has changed or eliminated many of our holiday plans. That could add even more stress and dread to an already stress-laden holiday season. For those of us still planning to meet with small groups of family during the holidays, here’s how to we deal with the stress of these gatherings.

Causes of Holiday Stress

Before we discuss how to better manage holiday stress, we first need to look at what causes this stress. How can we better handle the stress of family gatherings if we don’t quite know what the triggers are? You may already know exactly what or who triggers you, but let’s take a look at some of the common triggers.1

Sour memories – Not all memories of childhood are pleasant. For some of us, there are large parts of our childhood we’d rather block out or forget. Maybe you experienced or witness a traumatic event at the place you usually gather. If some of these events occurred during the holidays, chances are this time of year will trigger those memories.

Toxic relatives – Families can be large and they’re all made up of people. No matter the social standing, background, or location, every family can have toxic members. They may be negative or crabby, tend to insult or belittle you, or just make everyone feel uncomfortable. No matter what they do, you’re likely going to be stuck in the same house with them for a bit and that can certainly be stressful.

Changes – The holidays can highlight big changes in your life, whether it be a death in the family, a divorce, or a son or daughter who has moved away from home. Any of these changes can upset the dynamic and add to holiday stress.

The status quo – Sometimes it’s not about what has changed but what is still the same. Maybe for you it’s going to the  same house, eating the same food, hearing the same jokes, and opening the same gifts.

Weakened defenses – You may be at your wits’ end by the time you get to where you’re going. The stress of travel, holiday shopping, work, and everything else has hit you pretty hard. Once you’re around family it may just be too much to take.

Stress can also come from our expectations of the holidays. Here are some thoughts and notions that tend to ramp up holiday stress:2

“Holidays are supposed to be joyous and happy.”

“Holidays are times when families come together.”

“If you don’t have family, then there’s no reason to celebrate.”

“There’s no place like home for the holidays.”

“The bigger the gift and/or the more we spend, the better.”

“Everything has to be perfect.”

So what can we do to destress holiday gatherings, whatever that may entail in 2020? Here are some tips to help.

Tips to Reduce or Better Manage Holiday Stress

Try to resolve the conflict – If a source of your stress is a conflict between another person, ask if they’d like to talk it out. If they are open to this, you may find the discussion easier than anticipated. Sometimes conflict is the result of a misunderstanding that can be easily talked out. This may lead to further discussions that help heal the relationship.3

Forgive and forget – If it doesn’t seem like a civil discussion is possible, it may be necessary to do your best to forgive the other person and move on. Forgiveness doesn’t mean opening yourself up to feeling wrong again; it means that you’ve let go of your resentment and anger. This may be a good time to change your boundaries and expectations from this person in the future.3

Minimize or cut off contact – If what the other person or persons did to you was abusive and you foresee no change in the future, you have the power to limit your contact with this person or cut it off altogether. This is typically a last resort option, but in cases of abuse or trauma it may be necessary for your own good.3

Change your outlook – If old traditions aren’t working, don’t be afraid to try new ones. Don’t keep doing things that cause you stress and grief. Think about changing a plan. What’s the worst that could happen from the change? Chances are very little to nothing bad would happen and the relief from the change would make it all worthwhile.1

Don’t overdo it – Do your best to pace yourself during this time. Before any gatherings happen, decide on some limits and stick to them. It’s not rude to put time limits on visits.1

Keep reasonable expectations – Don’t go into gatherings believing everything will be solved and wrapped up nicely like a Hallmark movie in one visit. That’s not to say breakthroughs can’t happen, but don’t pin your hopes on leading members of your family to drastic breakthroughs. Instead, focus on your own state of mind and perhaps postpone those difficult conversations to a less hectic time of year.1

Don’t deny your feelings – There tends to be pressure for everything to be perfect and tidy during the holidays. Think about the gatherings you see in commercials and TV shows. That’s not reality, and most people have less than perfect gatherings, which is fine. Don’t deny your feelings; there’s nothing wrong with feeling down or anxious during the holidays.1


  1. Griffin, R. Home for the Holidays. WebMD.
  2. Surviving the family holiday. BeWell Stanford.
  3. Scott, E. How to Handle Unresolved Conflict at Family Gatherings. Verywell Mind.

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