How to Handle Holiday Stress During Family Gatherings

6 min read

Over the years, I have been asked, “How do I cope with my __________ [insert family relative] who drives me crazy at holiday gatherings with their _________________ [insert stressful behavior]?” Critical in-laws seem to play leading roles in this request.

Have you felt triggered and trapped during holiday gatherings, longing for a mediator or viable exit strategy? While these situations may feel unsettling, they provide the perfect opportunity to empower yourself and put coping skills to the test. In therapy, the work might focus on uncovering the root of the relational wounding and practicing new ways to interrupt the dynamics. Since therapy is not an option during holiday dinners, I suggest a three-part process to disengage from any dysfunctional patterns that surface:

Step 1: Prepare Yourself

Before entering any situation that might ignite stress or anxiety, I encourage clients to pack their pockets or purse with a few lightweight items (the reasons for these items are explained later):

  • Lip balm
  • Mints or Life Savers
  • Folded note to self (write an affirmation ahead of time, specifically for this situation)

Step 2: Notice

With this step, the task is to notice what you are experiencing and use these symptoms as a signal that you are entering a taxing territory. When provoked, do you experience anxiety symptoms (racing heart, shallow breathing, sweaty palms, shaky voice), defensiveness (anger, irritability), and/or emotional overwhelm (grief or hurt)? Direct your attention to your emotional and physical responses rather than ruminate on any offending words or behaviors.

Take a breath and silently connect with where you notice the feelings in the body. For example, “When ________ [insert any charged topic] comes up at the dinner table, I notice my stomach churning in anticipation of the disagreements that follow.” Allow your feelings, and thank the physical response for alerting you to make a shift.

Step 3: Excuse Yourself

Whenever these distress symptoms surface, instead of reaching for another glass of wine or a second piece of pie, immediately excuse yourself and take a “restroom” break. Restroom breaks are unquestioned and permissible ways to escape any heated moment. For some, just knowing they have an out (house) is comforting. Restrooms are almost always available for private respite to center yourself, shift the mindset, and consciously connect to a noncharged, present-moment experience through grounding techniques.

Cheralyn Leeby

Source: Cheralyn Leeby

A Room to Rest

Sometime in the early 1900s, Americans adopted the name “restroom” for the British toilet room, loo, French pissoir, latrine, lavatory, or water closet. I now use the word “restroom” exclusively. It is fitting for this particular purpose.

When clients describe relatives who border on abusive with anger, demands, or judgment, yet they feel required to be in their presence on holidays, I suggest using the restroom as often as needed to de-escalate any rising emotional response and return to a more neutral state.

We typically allow ourselves several restroom breaks throughout the day. According to the Cleveland Clinic, depending on age and health variables, most people urinate 4-10 times in 24 hours. Excusing yourself several times during a dinner is healthier than sitting with and stuffing the angst.

Restrooms are spaces to release waste, wash hands and face, take a look in the mirror, breathe, and emerge renewed. Even in a public restroom, private breathwork and grounding practices can happen without anyone knowing.

When my mother had her stroke, I longed to take restroom breaks while in the hospital waiting room. With these breaks, I got off my phone, interrupted my runaway mind, and redirected my worry through conscious, mindful practices.

10 Grounding Practices for Restroom Breaks

  1. Breathwork: This can be done anytime, anywhere. Breathe in for five seconds and out for 10 (do this at least three times).
  2. Water: With attention, envision water as an energetic, cooling cleanser of toxic, firey exchanges. Notice the sound, feel, and temperature of the water. Focus on the smell, texture, and look of the soapy suds. Name three properties you notice about the water or soap. Continue conscious breathwork.
  3. Mirror work: As you look in the mirror, remind yourself that you are here, standing, alive, and breathing with choices and rights, no matter what happens outside. If there is an opportunity, connect with yourself by looking deeply into your eyes. Reassure yourself (and any wounded parts) that you are safe in this moment. Smile to yourself and even laugh, if you can. Continue breathing, making the out breath long and slow. Remind yourself that this, and everything, is temporary.
  4. Lip balm: Slowly apply lip balm, noting the flavor, smell, and sensation.
  5. Mint: Slowly savor a mint or Life Saver. Notice the color, taste, texture, smell, and sensation.
  6. Listen: Close your eyes and name five things you can hear. Breathe with each sound you notice. If your surroundings allow, softly hum to yourself. This tones the vagus nerve while directing your attention to making the soft sounds.
  7. Affirmation: If you have an affirmation written on the paper in your purse or pocket, pull this and read it silently three times. Repeat it another three times with your eyes closed.
  8. Yawn: Breathe out any uneasiness with a yawn or slow, audible exhale making a “haaaa” sound. You can mimic a scream silently by opening and closing your jaw several times. This releases tension held in the jaw.
  9. Tissue tearing: If you notice anger, spend a minute tearing up toilet tissue or a paper towel. Crumple it, and shoot some hoops into the trash as another energetic release.
  10. Move: Jumping, stretching, or shaking your limbs for 15 seconds will further release tension held in the body. As you emerge from the restroom, walk slowly and mindfully. Continue conscious breathwork. Repeat an affirmation phrase silently as you walk (e.g., “I am worthy.”).

These restroom practices help to cultivate tranquility to redirect reactivity and defensiveness. Repeat as often as necessary. Returning to the holiday situation room, you will likely feel more calm, composed, conscious, and self-directed.

So, the next time you feel yourself holding anything in, “skip to the loo” and practice emotionally relieving yourself.

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