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How to Manage Holiday Stress: A Therapist’s Guide to Going Home for the Holidays

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Andrea is a psychological counsellor based in the Netherlands who uses integrative techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT), and holistic therapies. Her practice focuses on crisis intervention and helping clients through anxiety.

Last Updated on December 21, 2023 by It’s Complicated

Introduction: Navigating Holiday Stress

The holiday season often conjures images of warmth, joy, and cherished moments with loved ones. However, for many, the thought of returning home for the holidays can stir up a cocktail of emotions – a blend of excitement and apprehension. This mixed bag of feelings within holiday stress is entirely normal.

I’ve witnessed first-hand the unique challenges individuals face when preparing to visit family during the festive season or in general visiting family throughout the year. However, during the holidays, there is an unspoken pressure to embrace the magic of the holidays, but the reality is, going home can sometimes feel like walking into a battlefield of emotions. For some it can be the one time in the year that all your family gets together, which means a catch up on all the things you haven’t been able to talk about or solve in the past year, in person.

These days many people live independent lives, abroad away from their families, so reuniting, and spending time with them in small spaces, can be a major contributing factor to the fractured family dynamics that occur during the holiday period. With the risk of your social battery being drained, to the necessity of engaging in endless conversations, or even navigating through potentially tense arguments, which arise after prolonged absences, the journey home isn’t always smooth sailing. The mental toll can be immense, leaving one feeling emotionally exhausted, rather than rejuvenated by the end of the festive season.

For many, managing mental health during the holiday season becomes a balancing act. The anticipation of reuniting with family members and sharing cherished traditions is juxtaposed with the anxiety of unresolved conflicts, differing viewpoints, or the fear of not meeting certain expectations.

As a therapist, I’ve encountered individuals struggling with the weight of these expectations, and feeling the burden of sustaining festive cheer while silently battling the inner conflict that results from holiday stress.

In this blog, we will explore therapist-approved strategies together to help you navigate going home for the holidays. The methods outlined will support you through the annual pilgrimage with emotional resilience, preserving your mental health and reconnecting and fostering meaningful relationships during this time of the year.

1. Setting Boundaries: Navigating Family Dynamics

Importance of Boundaries:

The holiday season can blur the lines between personal space and familial obligations. Setting boundaries is not about building walls; rather, it’s a means of creating healthy guidelines for better interactions. 

Assertive Communication Tips:

  • Clear Communication: Practise expressing your needs and limits clearly and respectfully.
  • Use ‘I’ Statements: Emphasise your feelings and perspectives without placing blame.
  • Setting Realistic Expectations: Communicate realistic expectations about your availability and involvement in holiday activities.

Techniques for Boundary Setting:

  • Prioritise Self-Care: Communicate your need for self-care without guilt or explanation.
  • Identify Triggers: Try to pick up on the situations or conversations that tend to drain your energy, and set boundaries accordingly.
  • Create Physical Boundaries: Designate spaces for personal downtime during gatherings to recharge.

Graceful Boundary Assertion:

  • Firmness with Empathy: Be firm yet empathetic when asserting boundaries.
  • Consistency is Key: Consistently reinforce boundaries to establish a precedent.
  • Respect Others’ Boundaries: Encourage the same respect for others’ boundaries.

Example Phrases for Boundary Setting:

  • “I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I need some time alone to recharge.”
  • “I’m comfortable discussing this at another time when emotions aren’t running high.”
  • “I value our time together, but I also need to prioritise my well-being.”

2. Self-Care Practices: Nurturing Your Well-being

Significance of Self-Care:

Amidst the hustle and bustle of holiday stress, self-care often takes a backseat. However, prioritising self-care is pivotal for maintaining mental and emotional well-being.

Practical Self-Care Routines:

Role of Self-Compassion:

  • Acceptance and Kindness: Practise self-compassion amidst high expectations. And the possible imperfections. Practice continued positive inner dialogue, or spend time processing the emotions that may come up.
  • Setting Realistic Goals: Avoid overwhelming yourself with unrealistic expectations; set achievable goals. These can change throughout your time, you may need to change the expectations you set while in the moment.

Incorporating Self-Care in Daily Life:

  • Establishing Rituals: Create self-care rituals specific to the holiday season, such as enjoying a quiet morning routine or evening relaxation, these can also be some things that you do at home when living by yourself. Like a skin care routine or a cup of tea. 
  • Saying No Without Guilt: Learn to decline invitations or commitments that may overwhelm you with holiday stress – without feeling guilty.

Emphasising Self-Care Mindset:

  • Prioritise Mental Health: Recognise that self-care isn’t selfish; it’s a necessity for mental health. Choosing yourself can be difficult especially when surrounded by family, but figuring out the balance between prioritising your mental health and still being proactive in the festivities can take time, sometimes we don’t get it right the first time.
  • Consistency Over Intensity: Consistently practise self-care in small, manageable ways rather than sporadic intense efforts. Make sure to be patient with yourself, remember to set your expectation with the amount of time you have, and if you have more time, you can always add things on.

3. Preparing Emotionally: Handling Conflicts and Tense Conversations

Understanding Emotional Preparation:

Anticipating challenging interactions or unresolved issues can heighten stress. Emotional preparation involves equipping oneself with strategies to manage emotions effectively.

Strategies for Handling Emotional Triggers:

  • Identify Triggers: Recognise personal triggers that may intensify emotions during interactions.
  • Self-Reflection: Reflect on past experiences to understand triggers and plan proactive responses.
  • Embrace Flexibility: Be open to adapting and reframing perspectives during conversations.

Proactive Approaches for Difficult Conversations:

  • Active Listening: Practise active listening to understand others’ viewpoints without immediate judgement.
  • Validation and Empathy: Validate emotions and demonstrate empathy, even during disagreements.
  • Redirecting Conversations: Skillfully redirect discussions away from sensitive topics when necessary.

Cultivating Emotional Resilience:

  • Learning from Experiences: Reflect on past conflicts as opportunities for personal growth and learning.
  • Embracing Imperfections: Accept that disagreements are a part of human interactions and don’t define relationships.
  • Seeking Support: Don’t hesitate to seek support from a trusted friend or therapist to process emotions.

4. Managing Social Energy: Thriving Amidst Family Gatherings

Understanding Social Energy Depletion:

Extended family gatherings can be socially demanding, leading to exhaustion for many. Managing social energy involves strategies to recharge and preserve vitality.

Introvert-Friendly Strategies:

  • Scheduled Breaks: If routine helps you, then plan short breaks or find moments alone to recharge during gatherings. This can consist of a nap after lunch, or a walk after dinner. 
  • Utilising Small Group Settings: Engage in smaller, more intimate conversations to conserve energy.

Setting Boundaries for Social Interactions:

  • Communicating Needs: Openly communicate your needs without feeling guilty, even if this means going home earlier than others.
  • Quality Over Quantity: Don’t focus all your energy on seeing everyone you can, instead focus on quality interactions, with people who matter most to you. 
  • Read our guide on how to establish and sustain healthy boundaries.

Recognising Personal Limits:

  • Self-Awareness: Recognise your social energy limits and honour them without guilt.
  • Advocating for Yourself: Advocate for your well-being by respectfully declining overwhelming social engagements.
  • Embracing Self-Compassion: Acknowledge that needing downtime doesn’t diminish your commitment to family.

Balancing Holiday Well-being

Navigating the complexities of Christmas at home involves more than decorations and traditions; it’s about protecting your mental health during the celebrations. From setting boundaries to self-care and emotional preparation, these strategies empower you to navigate the usual holiday stress of family gatherings with grace.

Remember, preparation doesn’t guarantee a conflict-free holiday, but it equips you with resilience and strategies to face challenges. Prioritise your mental health without sacrificing the festive spirit.

Wishing You a Joyful and Emotionally Resilient Holiday Season!

May this holiday season be filled with moments of connection, self-compassion, and an abundance of joy. Embrace the festive spirit while honouring your emotional needs, creating cherished memories that resonate with warmth and positivity.

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