It’s not “the most wonderful time of year” for everyone — for some, the holidays bring a high level of stress. When you have a dysfunctional family, occasions that bring everyone together can create more anxiety than cheer. Even if you have been living independently as an adult for many years, this is a time of year when many find themselves regressing into childhood roles. 

Whether it’s due to neglectful parents, a toxic aunt, or old sibling dynamics coming to the surface, if you find the holidays stressful because of your family, you aren’t alone. Fortunately, you aren’t a child anymore, which means you have a choice of how to respond. 

Have Realistic Expectations 

Whether consciously or not, we often enter into occasions with our families hoping that they will be different this time. We might have our fingers crossed, hoping that they will listen to us, communicate well, and not start acting in a way that drives us crazy.

Expecting your family to change who they are is setting yourself up for disappointment. Before you get together with your relatives this holiday season, set aside some time for yourself to reflect on your family and acknowledge how you wish things were different. Then work to accept them as they are, embracing the fact that they may act exactly as they did in the past. With low expectations, you may be pleasantly surprised by their behavior. Worst case scenario, they will behave exactly as you have expected. 

Set Boundaries 

Boundaries are important for all your relationships, but particularly when it comes to difficult ones. Take time to reflect on how much contact you really want with your relatives. Are there some that you simply can’t spend time with? Maybe there are others who you can tolerate in a group setting, but are uncomfortable with one-on-one conversation. Think about how much intimacy you are willing to share with each person. This will help you determine what boundaries you need to set. 

Knowing what you need will help you see the options before you so you can determine what will work best for you. For example, is there a way for you to leave the event after two hours? Would it give you more room to breathe if you rented a car rather than relied on relatives for transportation? Could you ask a friend to call you halfway through so you have an excuse to leave the room for a while?

Focus on Your Breathing 

When you find yourself struggling to ease your anxiety due to strained family dynamics, your breath can be a powerful way to ground yourself. Breathing is an integral part of all mindfulness practices, and some deep breaths can do a lot to calm you down. When you’re starting to feel anxious, take 10 deep breaths to reconnect with your body. 

Plan for “You” Time to Decompress 

Give yourself something to look forward to after the holidays are over by setting some time on your schedule for you. Choose an activity that will calm you and ease you back into your daily life after what may have been a triggering experience. You could book a massage, enjoy some quiet time reading, go to a movie, or really any activity that you find relaxing. 

At New Transitions Counseling Center, we understand how stressful it can be to spend the holidays with family. If you need cognitive behavioral therapy in Palatine to help you cope, contact us today to learn more.