6 Sanity-Saving Ways to Deal with Your Family During the Holidays

by | Updated: October 13th, 2020 | Read time: 4 minutes

‘Tis the season of love, cheer, and goodwill—but also ‘tis the season to fielding your brother’s intrusive questions and watching your aunt consume her body weight in wine before the turkey is even served.

In other words, welcome to the holidays—a time of year that’s as magical as it is fraught with tension, particularly when it’s spent with challenging family members.

Smiling Family Members Exchanging Gifts at Christmas to Represent the Concept of Surviving the Holidays and Holiday Stress | Vitacost.com/blog

And yet, with a few savvy tricks, you can not only survive the holidays with your family but also (gasp) enjoy them. Here are six ways to save your sanity when Santa is on his way:

1. Manage your expectations

We’re all guilty of it: Imagining that this will finally be the year when your family will end their dysfunctional behaviors and joyfully gather around a candlelit dinner to break bread. Who wouldn’t?

And yet, creating lofty expectations will only set you up for disappointment. Rather, aim to be realistic in the days and weeks leading up to the holidays. Acknowledge that your sister will try to one-up you in front of your new boyfriend. Accept that your uncle will unfailingly tell at least one off-color joke during dinner. Recognize that your impossible-to-please mother probably will make a snarky complaint about the pie you baked.

This isn’t to suggest you should shuffle into the holidays with a negative mindset, but it is suggesting that you save your higher expectations for things you can control: Namely, yourself, and your reactions to the people around you. Which brings us to our next point:

2. Live in the present

A large part of the reason family gatherings can feel so daunting is because they trigger painful memories and unresolved issues. Sure, you may be an adult who manages a successful business, but you’re still haunted by the way your cousin teased you relentlessly when you were kids. If you’re mired in the past, however, you’ll live in the present through a distorted lens—and experience the angst and sadness from years prior.

“I often tell my patients that depression lives in the past and anxiety lives in the future,” Elyssa Barbash, PhD., says. “Alternatively, calmness and peace of mind live in the present.”

To get there, ground yourself by breathing deeply, immerse yourself in the sensory details around you, and slow down. By practicing mindfulness this holiday season and existing in the here and now, you’ll likely find that the gathering is more than manageable, and even has glimmers of love and fun.

3. Summon your social family

Chances are, your single girlfriend needs somewhere to celebrate Thanksgiving, just as that couple you and your partner spend your Sundays with are having a stay-cation this year. Including members of your social family at your holiday events forces—or at least inspires—your family to be on their best behavior. Friends can also help diffuse sticky situations by providing a barrier between you and, say, your hyper-critical adult nephew.

4. Curb your intake

…of both sweets and sugar. Sure, a goblet of mulled wine may sound like a swell way to deal with your difficult family, but alcohol increases anger and aggression—or may turn you into a sobbing mess. Sugar, meanwhile, will put you on an emotional rollercoaster that will render the entire shebang uncomfortable. Don’t arrive at your family gathering on an empty stomach—it will make you more prone to overindulging in tempting treats, and cause whatever liquor you do drink to hit you harder. Rather, eat some protein (such as a hardboiled egg) and a few carrot sticks an hour or two before your holiday dinner, or snack on a handful of almonds on the car ride over.

Holidays with your family longer than a single night? Consistently eat healthfully, exercise adequately, and stay away from the spiked nog—you’ll thank yourself later.

5. See the light

You may have only miserable memories of that aforementioned cousin who tormented you as a child, but there’s a solid chance the man has changed in the last two decades. Observe your family in quiet and select one positive quality about each of them. Your sister may drive you up-the-wall but haven’t you always loved the way she treats your children? Your mother might provoke sides of you few see, but you’ll also note the efforts she’s always made to make her home hospitable. By taking the time to find the gold in others, you’ll being helping yourself. As author of Hardwiring Happiness Rick Hanson, PhD., puts it, “If you feel surrounded by lots of bad or at best neutral qualities in others, and only a sprinkling of dimly-sensed good ones, then you naturally feel less supported, less safe, and less inclined to be generous or pursue your dreams.” Focus on one’s virtues and you’ll be far less inclined to bolt for the door the first chance you get. More importantly, you may be able to enjoy them.

6. Have a decompress strategy

Trust me: You can make it through a three-hour dinner, even if the conversation around you has you intent on taking a 23andme test as soon as you get home, because you’re certain you’re not related to this family around you. How can you bear it? By giving yourself something to look forward to later. Pick something that will feel like a reward for the work that’s required to treat your family with grace and patience (because, let’s face it, navigating family dynamics can be hard work). Perhaps it’s a hot, lavender-infused mineral bath. Maybe it’s a solo walk through the neighborhood. Possibly it’s the promise of venting to your brother-who-couldn’t-come-home this year over the phone. Whatever it might be, picture it in your mind and use it to breathe through distressing moments. Self-care, after all, is the greatest gift you can give yourself—this holiday season and throughout the whole year.