Family is coming to town! Managing stress during the holidays

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No matter what type of holiday you celebrate, this season is filled with extra time spent with family and close friends. Whether you have good or bad relationships, spending more time with family can lead to more stress during the holidays. We know from years of research that experiencing stress is normal. The goal is not necessarily to get rid of all stress, but rather to manage stress in healthy ways.

Stress that is not managed in a healthy manner can have serious physical and emotional effects, such as difficulty sleeping and eating, high blood pressure, headaches, stomach problems, anxiety, irritability and moodiness. Extreme amounts of stress can lead to ulcers, heart attacks, strokes and even thoughts of self-harm.

People manage stress in many unhealthy ways, such as overeating, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol and spending hours watching TV or going online. Luckily, there are a variety of healthy ways that have been proven to reduce stress. The following is a short list of strategies that could be helpful this holiday season:

1. Focus on the present (not on the presents)

One of the best proven strategies for managing stress is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a “mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” Mindfulness can be practiced through breathing, praying, meditating, yoga and exercise. If you have a busy home with many family members visiting, finding a moment of peace and quiet can be difficult, but it is possible. Everyday moments such as listening to music, taking deep breaths, counting your steps, enjoying a hot shower and even washing the dishes can be used to practice mindfulness.

2. Expect and accept differences

When family comes to town, there can be a history (both positive and negative) that leads to conflict and stress. Certain family members seem to be angry, irritable or know exactly how to push our buttons. One way to manage these experiences is to shift our expectations and perceptions of others. If you know that a particular person always arrives for the holidays irritated, plan ahead for that to occur. Put your energy into determining how you want to respond to others. When you shift the focus to changing how you react, it can lead to a sense of empowerment and relief.

Another useful tool is active listening. This is listening in order to truly understand and validate another person. You may find that an irritable or cranky family member just needs a good listening ear during the holidays. Often after using active listening, family members are more likely to listen to you in return.

3. Simplify your schedule

During the holidays there are many events that keep us busy. This is particularly true for families with children. One way to manage the stress of the holidays is to simplify your schedule. Instead of doing everything, focus instead on the most important and essential experiences during the holiday season. If that means saying no to a few gatherings, parties, and/or invitations, that is OK. As a family, discuss what events are most important and vital to your holiday rituals and focus on enjoying these experiences.

4. Practice gratitude

Taking time to practice gratitude can help immensely to reduce stress. To practice gratitude, it is important to develop several strategies and be consistent. Keep a gratitude notebook or journal that you write in each day. Practicing gratitude can reshape the type of interactions and relationships you have with the people around you. When we are stressed we tend to notice the negatives in others and in day-to-day life. Practicing gratitude reminds us of the positives, and leads to increased patience and kindness towards others. In return, other family members tend to mirror these behaviors.

5. Connect with others and/or with nature

Even when surrounded by family and friends, people can feel separated and disconnected during the holiday season. This is where connecting with others or with nature can be important. Connecting through nature, or spiritual/religious practices, remind us that the world is bigger than ourselves. Take the time to go for a hike, visit a local park or walk through your neighborhood looking at holiday decorations. Plan an event where the whole family takes part in giving back to others. Show your children that treating others with warmth and love is important.

If you feel that your stress level is above and beyond what you can manage, it is important to ask for help. This may be help from a close friend or family member. It can also mean seeking out professional support from a counselor or therapist. I wish you and your family a happy, healthy, and low stress holiday season.

Andrea S. Meyer Stinson. Ph.D., is an assistant professor and assistant program director for the Master of Family Therapy Program at Mercer University medical school.