As we head into the official holiday season next week, many of us may be starting to feel anxiety about family interactions.  Let’s put COVID aside for now and talk about how you can prepare and handle stress during the holidays.

Although Norman Rockwell paintings have put forth the idea of the gloriously happy family, very few of us have really experienced this.  More often than not, family gatherings involve a mix of personalities and behaviors that can take even the most evolved and grown-up version of ourselves and within minutes transform it into one that more accurately reflects a two-year-old having a temper tantrum.  The truth of the matter is that the ideal family mostly exists only in the collective brainwashing we have all experienced when it comes to what our family should be like.

How can you prepare yourself to increase the probability that you will be able to stay serene and happy during the holidays, despite the family dynamics that will inevitably develop?

First of all, just like the lecture you get at the beginning of any airplane flight, take care of yourself before taking care of anyone else.

This means the usual things:

  • Get enough sleep more often than not
  • Eat more healthy food than sugary, rich food
  • Move your body
  • Get some fresh air
  • Meditate or just close your eyes for a minute and breathe
  • Limit alcohol consumption

Just try to do the best you can with these things, as being too restrictive can also add to your stress if you beat yourself up for not being perfect.

When visiting (either virtually or in-person), if you feel yourself getting stressed, give yourself the two-year-old’s best remedy – take a time out.  Get yourself away from the situation.  Make that sudden “urgent phone call” (otherwise known as getting away from everyone for a few minutes), get outside for a walk, volunteer to pick up something from the store.  Take a few minutes by yourself to breathe and remind yourself there are other things in your life besides what is going on with your family.  Allow yourself to have this time to get a bigger perspective.

And maybe the most important thing of all is this:  Have realistic expectations.  Family dynamics that are dysfunctional for most of the year will not miraculously transform into that Norman Rockwell painting just because everyone is together for a holiday.  When you add overeating, alcohol, lack of sleep and excessive sugar to an already tenuous dynamic it only spells trouble.

Before the holiday season officially starts next week, take a few minutes to think about what is realistic, given your family, COVID restrictions and how holidays have been in the past.  Expect that there will be tension and maybe even craziness.  Try to look at it as a chance to see how good you are at staying grounded.  And if everything goes downhill and your holiday gathering looks more like “Meet the Fockers” than “It’s a Wonderful Life”, don’t worry, your family is more normal than you think.