Don’t let family ties tie you in knots

Therapists offer tips for dealing with holiday-season stress

Posted 11/13/18

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, or whatever you and your family celebrate is right around the corner. The holidays are supposed to bring a light of happiness to life with traditions, food, gifts, …

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Don’t let family ties tie you in knots

Therapists offer tips for dealing with holiday-season stress

Posted

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, or whatever you and your family celebrate is right around the corner. The holidays are supposed to bring a light of happiness to life with traditions, food, gifts, relaxation and — whether you like it or not — family.

Maybe seeing your family isn’t a problem, and family holiday gatherings are something that you look forward to each year. It’s not like that for everyone, though, and seeing the family during the holidays can be a stressful time for plenty of Americans.

We talked to three licensed family therapists about how to deal with stress that family can bring during the holidays. Whether you’re preparing to deal with family members whom you don’t see often, or to deal with family members who may have strong opinions that differ from yours, these therapists have pointers to make things easier as the holidays approach.

Dr. Reo Leslie

“You must’ve been watching some movies,” said Leslie as he chuckles over the phone when asked about his tips for dealing with family holiday gatherings. Leslie is full of knowledge about the subject, and he has the credentials to show it. The licensed marriage and family therapist founded the Colorado School for Family Therapy, a nonprofit organization and school that educates counselors, clinical supervisors, licensure candidates, psychotherapists and ministers.

Leslie’s first message to those who are dreading spending time with their family is to determine how long the interaction is going to be in order to better prepare yourself for what you’re getting into.

His second message to those who are stressed about family gatherings? You’re not obligated to participate in family functions.

“Family systems are really good at initiating emotions like shame and guilt, but you don’t have to buy into that. You don’t want to harm your stress and mental health,” Leslie said. “A lot of my clients choose not to participate in the holiday family situations. It’s harmful emotionally to go into bad family situations.”

For those who are worried about political discussions at the holiday dinner table, Leslie has a simple suggestion — don’t participate in it.

“If uncle Joe is a Democrat and aunt Sally is a Republican, you don’t want to discuss politics close to the turkey knives. Suspend that around the holiday time. There is no need to argue your opinion,” said Leslie. “Normally, expressing your opinion is important, but none of that needs to happen over the holiday dinner. Being with the family around the holidays is like moving into an alternative universe. You have to suspend reality for the time of the activity.”

Letha Atwater

Letha Atwater is soft-spoken and well-educated about coping with family holiday gatherings. She starts off a conversation about the subject with a similar suggestion that Leslie made — be prepared.

“One of the biggest things is being able to plan ahead for knowing that person (whom you don’t want to see) is going to be there,” said Atwater, director of clinical family therapy for Counseling Center of Colorado LLC.

Atwater’s suggestion for planning ahead involves having an escape plan. She said that having an escape plan can come in handy if nothing is going the way you want at a family holiday gathering. That escape plan can even be just going outside and taking a walk to separate yourself from a family member who is giving you issues.

Atwater emphasized how impactful relaxation techniques like taking deep breaths can be if someone is giving you anxiety. She also suggested using positive imagery as a coping mechanism, like imagining that you’re on a beach in Hawaii.

“People don’t know what is going on in your mind. Sometimes you really have to take yourself out of a situation if it is going to cause a lot of anxiety for you,” Atwater said. “I can’t stress enough that we control how we feel and think. If we look at it in that way, it really takes a lot of other people’s stuff off of our plate.”

Cory Reid-Vanas

Cory Reid-Vanas is a friendly, welcoming licensed marriage and family therapist who is the founder of Rocky Mountain Counseling Coaching Consulting, a counseling service for individuals, families and couples.

“This is a really important time of year to practice taking good care of ourselves. Obviously, it is important to attend and spend time with family, but it’s also important to practice that sentiment that our responsibility is to take good care of ourselves,” Reid-Vanas said.

Reid-Vanas said that having a family member who is challenging for you, or who increases your stress level, can be an opportunity to practice self-care. Part of practicing self-care includes getting rest through doing things you enjoy, practicing better nutrition and getting exercise. All of those things are great methods for dealing with stress that the holidays and family can bring on, according to Reid-Vanas.

“You are going to experience stress. The goal isn’t to control stress. The goal is to manage stress to minimize it so that you can enjoy your holiday,” Reid-Vanas said.

Reid-Vanas has other methods for dealing with stress that family can create during the holidays. He calls them “plug ins” and “plug outs.” Plugging in is about connecting with yourself and focusing on your values and priorities. Plugging out is about connecting with “the external,” and that involves everything from people and the natural world.

“I think that with how our world is set up, holidays can be stressful around expectations of spending time with family, preparing meals, or purchasing gifts. Stress levels can easily go up,” said Reid-Vanas. “We all have family members. Families are complex. They’re both difficult and beautiful all in the same sentence.”

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