The Joy (and Stress) of Holidays with Family

By MJ Ali

My nuclear family consists of those who’ve known me since before I could dress myself. Some family members would say that’s still true, but I get to ignore them for the purposes of this post. I also have work family, something-in-common family, been-friends-forever family. Only one of those was not chosen, and that’s the one into which I was born.

I realize what a rare unicorn it is to be part of a family where we actually like each other as people and often get along really well. We come together during times of crisis, support each other, and cheer for each other. It’s far from perfect, but hey, it’s mine.

The times when I can remember the most conflict, though, are holidays. What is it about holidays? I think it partially has to do with unaddressed issues that surface during the stress of everyone being together and all those old dynamics rearing their heads. If you haven’t seen a family member for a while because you’ve been avoiding conflict with them, that can definitely contribute to any stress or anxiety you may be experiencing.

Holidays aren’t the times to voice repressed resentments or to try to mend damaged relationships; they’re crazy and stressful. Time is compressed, people aren’t on their usual schedule, and often the environment is different so you’re not in your comfort zone, or your space has been upended. And while this mild chaos is temporary and often welcomed, it can be tricky to maintain holiday fun without stirring up a little friction.

A Google search for “holiday stress” returns twenty-five million results. In other words, not only are you not alone, but there are tons of resources for coping, surviving, and yeah, even enjoying, the holiday season.

If you prepare for holiday time with family, it can help minimize stress and anxiety during the season and maybe even allow you some relaxation time. I know, right? Imagine that!


I’m not great at preparing ahead, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. And it doesn’t have to be complicated. Find what causes stress or anxiety when you think about the upcoming holidays, make a list of the stressors, and next to each one a way in which you might alleviate that stressor during the holidays.e

For example:

STRESSOR: Traveling

Take something that grounds you to home. This could be a scent, an object, a visual, your favorite book.

STRESSOR: Full house

Even if you love the chaos that can accompany visiting family, it never hurts to carve out your safe place, even if it’s the curb or a corner in your yard. You may end up not even needing it, but you’ll know it’s there. Also, an inner safe place is just as important, even more so. This could be affirmations, sayings that ground you, self-talk, counting to ten while taking a full, slow breath.

STRESSOR: Passive aggression

Passive-aggressive behavior can actually cause us to feel unsafe, and it’s very toxic. We see it in sitcoms all the time, but in real life it’s not funny. If you’ve got your physical and mental safe places set up already, use those tools to cope. You’re not going to change the passive-aggressor, so you can only change how you deal with it.


What role do you play in your holiday family dynamics? Are you the one who always ends up planning, cooking, wrapping, organizing, cleaning up? Are you the one who tries to help out but always gets told to go relax? Whatever your role, if it’s part of your holiday stress, you have the ability to change that role. Be up front, speak up for yourself, decide what’s best for you. Sometimes it can be revelatory to step out of that assigned role. It tends to have a ripple effect.

STRESSOR: Blame/guilt

Whether blaming others or yourself, it all has the same consequence: stagnation. Nobody can move forward when stuck in the blame game. When we decide to abandon the role of victim (this includes blaming others), we get to take personal responsibility, love and accept ourselves and each other just as we are, and move forward. Easier said than done? You bet! Doable? Heck, yeah.

STRESSOR: Entanglement

Holidays can open old wounds and resurrect negative dynamics. Knowing your own boundaries and staying true to them no matter what isn’t always easy, but it’s essential for sanity. Again, having tools in place during this time is essential. Safe place, affirming your sense of self, designating an emergency support system, and keeping yourself healthy and safe are all going to contribute to a better holiday time with family.

ADDED STRESS: Change in diet and exercise routine

The foods and exercise that help regulate our mood and energy can be seriously compromised during the holidays. Ironically, the stress we feel can actually trigger the very things that might help with our stress: healthy diet and exercise.

Try as much as possible to retain a portion of both, and during those times when you know it might not be possible, modify so that you don’t lose touch completely with those things that help maintain a healthier, happier you. Packing exercise bands and using natural supplements to help with diet changes are two easy things to do during this time.

Having said all that, knowing your mindset and whether you’re prepared to have fun during this time is probably the most valuable tool in your survival kit. If you are, yay! If not, take it easy on yourself. Some situations are just too much. Know your limits and protect them. You do have choices, including the choice to simply not attend a family holiday event you don’t feel comfortable with. A lot more people are deciding to schedule family visits outside traditional holiday times and that’s resulting in quality time with far less stress, and that makes for a much better visit for everyone.

Our families’ opinions of us, and the importance we place on them, can run really deep. Sometimes, they can really hurt. I leave you with this quote, which has been attributed to the Dalai Lama, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the list goes on. I’ve taken it to heart, and continue to practice getting there. It’s particularly helpful in stressful and complicated situations, and something worth growing into. Because even though it may take constant practice, it really is worth it.

“What you think of me is none of my business.”

~Multiple attributions (including Eleanor Roosevelt)

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