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Here’s How to Cope When Holiday Gatherings Stress You Out


The holidays should be a celebrated time spent with loved ones, but more than half of us say that our beloved family get-togethers are a significant source of stress. Just in time for Turkey Day, psychologist and popular self-help guide When It’s Never About You ($14.95, Amazon) author Ilene S. Cohen, Ph.D., clinical psychology professor Robert L. Leahy, Ph. D., and “In It Together” blog author and psychologist Dianne Grande, Ph.D., are sounding off about how to deal with holiday stress and nix the anxiety that goes hand-in-hand with holiday gatherings.   

Acknowledge That Your Feelings Are Normal

We all want to hide in the linen closet around certain family members, and that’s perfectly normal, assures  Cohen. Gratefulness and compassion don’t come from forcing a happy face — they stem from being honest about which relationships are difficult, she promises. “It’s easy to be kind when we’re not stressed, but accepting what makes us anxious and managing through it — that is real self-love.”

Look to the Future

Instead of lamenting how you feel in the moment, consider how you want to feel after Thanksgiving is over. “Research shows that focusing on your future self reduces stress by distancing you from your current anxiety,” reveals The Worry Cure ($12.82, Amazon) and The Jealousy Cure ($16.95, Amazon) author Leahy. “Starting at the end, with your ideal outcome, helps you envision the steps that’ll get you there,” he explains.

For example, you can tell yourself, “I want to walk away feeling in control.” Then, come up with a simple plan to achieve your goal, like setting reminders on your phone to step away from the table at the top of every hour for a quick breather. 

Practice Mindfulness

Being mindful of the moment you’re in is an effective way to cue calm. But it can be hard to do in the of middle of the festive fray — unless you make a fist, that is. “Tense your hand and picture yourself holding balloons,” says Leahy. “Then relax and watch the balloons float away, like your stress.” 

Dubbed “embodied mindfulness,” this trick helps you to let go of negativity more quickly because it taps both your mind and body.

Don’t Be the Referee

If you’re the designated diplomat in your family, always curbing potential spats, you’re not alone — women report much higher levels of “peacemaker stress” over the holidays. To shift out of this pressure-packed role, just call on your curiosity, says Grande. “Step back and be an observer, asking questions like, ‘That’s interesting —how did you come to feel this way?'” 

This tactic a win-win, since accessing the inquisitive part of your brain slashes stress and making others feel heard is a good way to make them feel less combative.

Count Your Blessings

Instead of letting a certain critical relative get to you, try this simple exercise: List all the things you enjoy that have nothing to do with him, urges Leahy. “You laugh with friends, walk the dog, and the list goes on,” he observes. 

Reflecting on how little someone impacts you overall allows you to compartmentalize his role in your life and more easily accept your differences. Says Leahy, “It’s so liberating to be able to tell yourself, ‘I care about this person, but I accept that they can be unreasonable at times.’”

Widen Your Circle of Gratitude 

Inviting more joy and quashing stress may be as easy as expanding your “gratitude circle,” says Grande. Think about how your family traveled safely to their destination, then imagine your friends happily arriving at theirs, then coworkers, and so on. These ever-expanding concentric circles of thankfulness will broaden your perspective, reducing your anxiety and lifting your spirits.

This story originally appeared in our print magazine. 

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