Surviving the Family This Holiday Season

Family holiday dinner

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Eight in ten Americans say that expectations and events around the holidays cause them to feel increased stress, with 31.1% admitting their physical and mental health definitely worsens in the last quarter of the year. 

Many people dread going home for the holidays. It can be a stressful time of tiptoeing around fractious family members, trying to keep the peace, and maintaining some personal space.

The American Institute of Stress claims that a score of 150 to 300 points on their Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory equals a 50% chance of a health breakdown in the next two years. The total score is the sum of all one’s stressors; for example, divorce tops the stress scale with a 100.

The holidays are a veritable smorgasbord of stress, with vacations (13 points), holidays (12 points), and potential in-law troubles (29 points). Those who don’t manage their space and set boundaries, could experience changes in residence (20 points), recreation (19 points), social activities (18 points), sleeping habits (16 points), family get-togethers (15 points), and eating habits (15 points). Adding all those together gives a person a score of 157 points, which puts them at an elevated stress risk, even if everything else is going great.

This Too, Shall Pass

Holiday annoyances

One strategy is to recognize that stressors are temporary. People can try keeping calm and carrying on with a stiff upper lip, figuring it’s better if they can enjoy their families. Coleman Concierge interviewed five travel and relationship experts to learn what it takes to not only survive, but to thrive this holiday season.

Plan It Out

Young woman enjoying a cup of coffee outdoors at a street cafe as she sits chatting to her boyfriend or husband in the summer sun

Planning is the first step of any endeavor. That’s especially true when confronting unresolved issues from childhood or unrequited affections from youth. A family visit can bring up those issues. Relationship experts have some advice and tips for preparing for the holidays physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

Stephen Barton, owner and founder of life coaching site Over The Looking Glass, and author, offers, “My advice to anyone is: ‘Be true to who you are, always in all ways.'”

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Yancy Wright, leadership coach and founder of Casa Alternavita, provides these concrete steps for doing just that: “Create a clear agreement with your significant other about how long you plan to stay with their family. Whether it is just for a few hours, overnight or even for a few days, give yourself permission to create space for you to be on your own to recharge as needed.”

There are a few options for finding safe spaces when people or their partners are in times of conflict. Renée D. Burwell, LCSW and Educator, says, “Maybe your parents have an in-law suite, stay at a hotel, or your bedroom or even a closet can be your safe haven when space is needed.”

Dr. Christina Kraft, DMD, has some guidance for being intentional about holiday travel. “Spend some time before your trip thinking, meditating, or journaling on why you are visiting family this holiday,” she says. “Consider the purpose of this family time and why it’s important. Focus on positive feelings and memories and visualize an experience filled with love, laughter, and gratitude. Most importantly, grant yourself and others grace and forgiveness if things don’t go as planned.”

Couples may have some unique travel issues. Jennifer Coleman, a couples travel expert, offered practical advice for couples travel particularly appropriate for a gift-giving holiday, “Money is a major source of stress for most couples, so discussing your budget and financial expectations before embarking on your trip is essential. When your budget is decided beforehand, all you need to do on vacation is to enjoy yourselves.”

Peace and Goodwill to All People 

Parents and adult children standing with drinks in garden

The professionals also had some pointers for maintaining peace and goodwill during time with the family. They suggest being careful around controversial topics like conspiracy theories, religion, and politics.

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Barton added caveats for controversial conversations like, “unless they bring up the subject,” and, “It’s best not to have an opinion about anything even when asked.” Wright suggests people, “find a way to go in with a mindset of curiosity,” while Dr. Kraft takes that idea one step further. She advises, “Understanding that people’s reactions to others are more about themselves and their own internal dialog than it is about you.”

If things do go astray, all is not lost. Yancy suggests guests, “Try to redirect the conversation to something else, something more generative of laughter and connection.” Dr. Kraft recommends self-care by scheduling, “a short trip with lots of private time so everyone has space to decompress.”

If things get heated, Burwell recommends having safety signals and to check in with your partner often because, “Having each other’s back and maintaining a strong unit will help to preserve peace this holiday season and potentially years to come.”

Make Some Space

Beautiful woman with presents standing near the Christmas tree

Some aspects of holiday travel can be more stressful if sharing a family space instead of staying in a hotel. Coleman encourages establishing travel rituals because they “provide a sense of stability amidst the excitement and unfamiliarity. It could be something as simple as having breakfast together each morning or setting aside time daily to reflect on the day’s experiences.” She continues, “Mistakes and disagreements are bound to happen. Learn to forgive and let go of any resentments. Holding onto grudges will only dampen the joy of your travel experiences. Embrace forgiveness and keep your focus on the present.”

Appreciate the Opportunities

A senior and a young adult couple eating together outdoors

The winter solstice is the longest night of the year, but even the darkest nights have a dawn, and a new year will soon arrive. Yancy says, “Focus on what you can appreciate. Even the little things, like how some food might be prepared or what someone is wearing. It’s so easy to get into a critical and judgmental mindset, so it takes practice to instead focus on things that bring you into the present moment.”

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Coleman calls on her adventure travel expertise, equating a family visit with a spot in one’s comfort zone. For some, it’s as comfortable as a warm hug; for others, it can be as uncomfortable as eying the water below a 40-foot cliff jump. She says, “Just beyond your comfort zone is the growth zone, where you can learn and accomplish things you’ve never thought were possible and return with more confidence and courage to face new challenges.” She describes the experiential learning cycle she used while teaching skiing as, “learning a new skill, trying it out, and reflecting on what you’ve learned.”

Remember to reflect on what went right and what went “not so right” during the holiday season and what can be done next time to manifest those goals and desires you visualized before hitting the road. Family connection could be the greatest holiday gift you’ll ever receive. Approaching loved ones with gratitude and forgiveness makes almost anything possible.

This article originally appeared on Media Decision.

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Holiday family meal
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Hi! We are Ed and Jenn Coleman aka Coleman Concierge. In a nutshell, we are a Huntsville-based Gen X couple sharing our stories of amazing adventures through activity-driven transformational and experiential travel.

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