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Ways to Alleviate the Stress of the Family Holiday Season

min read

By Kathi Cameron, MA, RCC

Medically Reviewed by Greg Dorter, RP

Tis the season for bringing families together in one small, cramped, overheated house to enjoy the holidays in peace, love, and intergenerational harmony. For many, family gatherings can pose the most challenging and stressful times of the year. From arguments over politics to long standing grudges, holiday family reunions can make some of us dread this season more than a tax audit.

For those who would rather get a root canal than go home for Christmas, we offer 10 ways to, not only get through the turmoil in one piece, but also to reduce stress and increase the enjoyment of the holiday season…

Take a Deep Breath

The next time we’re met with a room of screaming kids or a drunken relative telling us what’s what, taking a deep, slow breath to reduce stress response.  The key to deep breathing is breathing through the stomach (a.k.a. diaphragmatic breathing).  The deeper the breath the more oxygen enters the lungs and feeds the body systems resulting in a reduction in blood pressure, heart rate, and the urge to wring the necks of the ones we love.

Deep breathing can be done at any time and becomes more effective and efficient the more we practice. Research has confirmed that one deep breath can lower blood pressure and reverse the stress response.  Try taking a deep cleansing breath for about 6 seconds and exhaling for 7- to 8-seconds. This may be all that’s necessary to buffer us from the white noise of a full house.  

Take a Timeout

Of course, when our uncle’s over drinking and those really bad jokes are getting the best of us, sometimes our only defense is to retreat and restore. Time outs are not just an effective way to decompress for children, but they work miracles for adults as well.  Retreating to another room or a quiet area of the house to take a breath may be all that is necessary to avoid an otherwise uncomfortable situation.

Taking time out for ourselves can provide us with a wider (or different perspective) It can provide us with the time we need to gather our thoughts, take a breath, and get reoriented to go back and be our best selves with our family.  

Write it Down

We’ve all had the frustrating experience of holding our tongues when we would rather lose our heads and say what’s really on our minds.  Inevitably, when we do lose our cool, we tend to feel remorse for what was said in the heat of the moment.  Journaling is one of the best ways to channel our anger and frustration. It also provides a cathartic way to keep our self-control intact.

Psychologist and researcher, James Pennebaker from the University of Texas at Austin, suggests that writing down those stressful times may assist us in understanding the events. It also helps us become more self-aware, and results in a reduction in stress.

Take a Walk

Slipping out for a quick walk around the block is a fabulous way to calm down and regroup before venturing into the family compound for turkey dinner. Physical activity has been noted in the research as an effective way to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, while benefiting from the fresh air and time away from the relatives.

The good news is that based upon the latest studies; we only need 30- to 60-minutes of moderate, daily waking a day to reap all the mental and physical benefits. From reducing arthritis pain and risk of chronic disease to enhancing our energy and overall mood, walking is free! We can do it anywhere and it doesn’t take special equipment to participate.

Challenge Perceptions

This tip is not for the faint hearted, but completely necessary if we want to rid ourselves of those negative emotions and reactions for good. Stress and anger management courses are based upon the principle that no one can make us angry or stressed out, but us. We react to others based upon our own beliefs, attitudes, and expectations. If we can challenge our perceptions we may be able to change our emotional reactions.  

Our perceptions come from a myriad of life experiences, childhood, and culture. The trick is to shift our perceptions and expectations for the upcoming family holiday dinner and try to see it through a new lens. If we are successful at doing so, we may never have to lose sleep over the next pending holiday event again.

Be an Assertive Communicator

One of the biggest factors in relationship stress comes from the inability for us to communicate in a healthy and effective manner. No one is born understanding how to communicate well and there is no skill involved in communicating passively, aggressively, or not at all.   

Assertive communication is defined as the ability to address what we need in a way that is respectful to the listener.  It isn’t about name calling, sarcasm, or the silent treatment. By becoming more aware of our needs during family gatherings coupled by asking others to meet or respect our needs, we may significantly reduce our stress and be able to enjoy the holidays.

Just Say No

The pressure to join our families in holiday celebrations may be too much for many of us to bear. While we crave a quiet season with our immediate families and friends, we may succumb to the influence of Christmases past. Unfortunately, once the season comes to an end we start the New Year feeling like we need a vacation.  

Although it may be challenging to decline family invitations, it may be necessary to support our own physical, mental, and financial health.  Dr. Carol Bernstein, associate professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine suggests keeping an open mind to how we may spend the holiday season. Perhaps instead of a week stay at the family compound, we can promise a few days or maybe every other year will suffice.  No matter what we decide, it is important to communicate our needs and the reasons behind them to our family members to avoid hurt feelings.

Set Clear Boundaries (and Stick to Them)

Similar to saying no more often, boundary setting is a valuable tool to fight off stress when visiting family over the holidays. Whether this means outlining the amount of money we can spend or how much family drama we will participate in, establishing these boundaries ahead of time may be the difference between a relatively stress-free event and one that ends in strained relationships.

While it is easier said than done, the key to success comes when we are able to communicate these boundaries in an assertive and respectful manner while defending them when necessary. Using “I” statements such as, “I feel disrespected when you fail to knock before walking in my room”, may help to verbalize what we need effectively.  

Pet Your Pet

Living with a pet not only reduces our stress response, but also delivers a myriad of positive physical and mental health benefits (i.e., reduction in depression, anxiety, and an increase in cardiovascular health).  If our family gathering includes the odd cat or dog, be sure to take the opportunity to hang out with them when the family stress takes over.

Petting an animal can quickly reduce our “fight or flight” response and helps to release endorphins that have a calming effect.  Better yet, if that doesn’t work, leash up Fido and take him for a walk around the block.  Nothing reduces stress more than a combination of walking, fresh air, deep breathing, and a happy dog.

Challenge Thinking Errors

Whether it’s black or white thinking or generalizations, we all have our favorite thinking errors to support our false beliefs…and resulting behaviors and emotions that come from them. Thinking errors are incorrect, habitual ways of thinking that almost always lead to frustration, anger, and stressful moments. Examples include the belief that all people should be polite or all people should signal on the freeway or not drive at all.  When this doesn’t happen, it can lead to anger and frustration.

The key to change lies, first, in our awareness of our favorite thinking errors and the challenge of each. If we believe our family members should avoid burping at the dinner table, and Uncle Albert starts burping the alphabet, we may feel angry. If we shift our perspective to believe that burping will be a part of the dinner entertainment, we may find ourselves in better spirits (and more tolerant of Uncle Al’s skills). This shift in perspective can help reduce the stress of family holiday season and even have us looking forward to the next one.

RP, Registered Psychotherapist

Greg has a master's degree in counselling psychology and is a registered psychotherapist in Ontario where he's been practicing with individuals and couples for 15 years. He specializes in evidence-based treatments such as CBT and mindfulness, and produces a variety of online self-help content you can find on ( and twitter (@GregDorter).

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