The holiday season is a time to reunite with those we care about. But togetherness doesn’t necessarily translate into those heartwarming scenes we’re taught to expect by songs, movies and advertisers. Instead, we may end up stressed, frustrated and resentful as old patterns repeat themselves, priorities clash and memories resurface. That family baggage you’ve accumulated over the years can’t be unpacked overnight but there are steps you can take to help make this holiday season a positive one and get on the path toward healthier long-term relationships with those closest to you.
Watch for Triggers
First, take an honest look ahead and consider what emotional triggers you may find yourself up against this holiday season. By simply acknowledging they exist, you’ll help brace yourself against their impact. For example:
The Trauma of Change
Another year has gone by and perhaps someone you love is gone, or the kids are growing up and moving on, or there’s been a divorce in the family. The holidays can be an unsettling reminder of how quickly time passes and that nothing stays the same.
And then there are the things that don’t seem to change. Families create stories about each other, and those impressions can become fixed, despite what may be years of evidence to the contrary. The once irresponsible teen, for example, may now run a successful company yet still not be trusted to run to the store and pick up the holiday turkey.
It’s a time when we’re urged to eat, drink and be merry, and tempting food and drink is all around. If any of these is a problem for you, holiday get-togethers can prompt anxiety as you try to monitor yourself, and guilt, self-loathing and embarrassment if you lose control.
Perhaps you’ve made progress against an eating disorder, or with drinking or drugs, or with mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. But you may have a history of missing or disrupting past gatherings because of these issues. No matter how far you’ve come, it can still feel as though you remain under a microscope.
Being around those with whom you have a long-term emotional connection inevitably means memories will surface — and they may not all be good. You may find yourself ruminating about unresolved issues and reliving painful moments and disappointments.
You don’t choose your family, as the saying goes, and that means the holidays can put you in contact with people you’d really rather avoid, perhaps because they don’t share your values, or they delight in pushing your buttons or belittling you, or because they have failed you or hurt you in some way. Unrealistic expectations We put so much pressure on ourselves and on others to create the perfect holiday. When we inevitably fall short, we can end up overwhelmed, exhausted and feeling as though we’ve failed.
Steps Toward Holiday Healing
- Make peace with stress
We think of stress as the enemy and have been taught to do everything we can to avoid it, but a growing body of research shows that bouts of stress can be positive, boosting mental performance and making us more resilient. “It’s all how you look at it,” said Jason Powers, MD, a positive psychology expert and the chief medical officer of Promises P.A.T.H and The Right Step, Texas-based addiction and mental health treatment centers. “If you give stress meaning — the way you explain it, the way you embrace it — it can be a catalyst for something good.” Stress also alerts you to the things that matter to you, he explained. “If you’re not feeling stress, you either don’t care or you’re not alive.”
- Challenge ingrained beliefs
Negative patterns in the way we relate to each other can only be changed if we first recognize they exist. That means stopping and noticing the distortions in our thinking and the expectations they lead to. For example, if your sibling has always been “the smart one,” you may instinctively back away from challenges because you’ve bought into the notion that you won’t measure up. If revamping your mindset proves tough to do, consider cognitive behavioral therapy, a technique that teaches you how to identify the false or negative narratives in your thinking and replace them with more realistic ones that lead to healthier outcomes. Not only can CBT improve relationships, it’s been shown to help with issues such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Research even suggests it improves brain functioning.
- Deal with the ghosts of Christmas past
Being around family can expose old wounds, and these should be explored rather than ignored. “But be careful about the stories you tell yourself about your traumas,” Dr. Powers said. “The trick is to use them to your advantage. Use your past as a guidepost rather than a hitching post.” The result can be post-traumatic growth, a concept developed after researchers discovered that trauma, paradoxically, has transformative power that allows people to propel themselves toward better lives. In fact, far more trauma survivors report post-traumatic growth in the wake of tragedy than report developing post-traumatic stress disorder. “This isn’t a Pollyannaish, ‘it’s all roses’ attitude,” Dr. Powers said. “Things don’t always happen for the best. But it is always possible to find the best in what happens.”
- Establish boundaries and priorities
Confer with those closest to you about what matters most this holiday season and aim for compromise and flexibility as you plan. Encourage room for new traditions if old ones are taking a toll. This might be the year to pick names, for example, rather than sending everyone running around to buy gifts for 20 relatives. If you feel the need to limit your time with certain people, do so. Just be honest about your intentions. Don’t leave them hanging with vague talk of trying to drop by, for example.
- Be open about what you’re dealing with
The holidays can be an especially tough time for those with mental health or substance use issues. Not only are these illnesses often misunderstood, the temptations and stresses of the holidays can boost the risk of relapse. Here’s what can help:
- Always have an escape plan so you can bow out gracefully if things get to be too much. “And don’t expect your sobriety to magically solve everything,” explained Todd Dugas, a licensed clinical social worker and executive director at Promises P.A.T.H. “If every year for the last 15, your parents’ house has been contentious, it’s probably not going to be different now. Recognize how much you can tolerate and moderate your exposure.”
- When you’re fresh in recovery, others can feel awkward and anxious as they wonder how best to react and try to read your mood. “It’s really helpful for the person in recovery to set the tone,” Dugas said. “It can be as simple as saying, ‘I’m really glad I’m sober, and I’m grateful to be here.’”
- Encourage your loved ones to get educated about what you’re dealing with. You’ll feel more supported and less judged as they come to understand that what you have is an illness, not a moral weakness. Refuse to be ashamed and you’ll strike a blow against the stigma that keeps so many from admitting they need help — and because mental health and addiction issues have genetic components, some in your family may be among that number.
- Don’t lose your sense of humor
Even if your family prides itself on being laid back, you’re probably not going to make it out of the holiday without moments of tension, resentment and frustration. A little levity can be a welcome counterbalance to the drama, helping all of you rise above any petty moments and keep things in perspective. Studies even link laughter to better mental and physical health. As author Madeleine L’Engle wrote: “A good laugh heals a lot of hurts.”