Biologically, a certain amount of stress is a necessary for survival. If we feel in danger, our parasympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) activates to stress our bodies and mind, so we can gather our full potential for running for our lives or for fighting like our life depends on it. Stress can impact our hormone production, which in turn can affect virtually every process in our body.
During holiday events with family gatherings, we are not in a life/death situation (for the most part)! However our stress levels increase for all of us because we are working harder than our normal routines to coordinate a larger group of people being together comfortably—from activities, to food, to conversations. My clients tell me their stress arises from a variety of family gathering related reasons, and I’m listing some of the top ones I hear more often:
- Financial issues with family collaborations
- They don’t like a family member or in-law
- They don’t want to be victimized or belittled
- Communication issues, misunderstandings, mass confusion
- Being in the same room as a family member they have repressed emotions about
- They don’t want to hear complaints or be in a negative environment
- Their schedules are not synchronized with others (time for waking, eating, sleeping); and they don’t want to constantly stress their biorhythms.
- Adults (over 18) that don’t want family knowing more than they are ready to reveal about their private lives (financials, sexuality, health, habits, & even career).
- Emotionally conflicted with a death on or near Christmas.
In order to better mediate stress from these varying issues, we need to have an awareness of what happens in our bodies, decide if we want to risk these biological issues within our bodies, and draw boundaries of what we are willing to do and not. It clearly is that simple. I empower my clients to do these things successfully. Some of my tips are:
- Communicate ahead of time on financial expectations so you can decide to participate or not. Group gift giving, Mystery santa gifts, or charitable gift giving are some courses for those concerned with directional budgets.
- Learn what stress threshold you have. Excessive stress starts to show you signs in a bio-individual way: stiff jaws, breathing difficulties, headaches, and digestive troubles. If there is not a life-death situation to justify the stress, take control over the stress by PREVENTION and planning ahead.
- When you are with a person and feel your stress increasing rapidly, give yourself another minute before you walk away. During that minute, breathe in very slowly and breathe out very slowly. Focus on your breath as proper oxygen intake can prevent stress from increasing to the point of panic or anxiety attacks. Understand that words (even if loud) cannot kill you unless you give those words power. After that minute, gently explain that you need to check in on something and walk away. Check in on yourself emotionally and try to understand what triggered your stress to see if it can be addressed for the future.
- Set a boundary of what you will share with inquisitive family members; and if someone crosses that boundary with a question, answer with a question. “What are you doing for a living these days?” “(silent pause) Why do you ask – are you doing okay?” Shift the focus back to the person asking. There may be a reason they are asking that has nothing to do with you.
- When logical communication fails, become the storyteller of the family. Tell a story that has a happy ending and some moral theme. Be suspenseful and draw everyone in with it. It can be current events, something that happened to you, or something made up. Holidays are a time of fun, entertainment, happiness, and laughter. Bring the holidays to your gathering. And this is a tip that you can prepare for with several short stories from the news, social media, your imagination.
- Communicating about expected schedules allows different groups of people to do different activities and still congregate for meals or events. The time schedule (give or take 10 minutes) resolves synchronicity with those that like to sleep in AND those that hit the gym before the sun rises!
- Grieving during the holidays can be stressful because of emotional conflicts and judgements. Take the morning of the family death anniversary to take an hour to grieve, remember, and celebrate their life. After that morning, take some time to normalize (take a walk, bath, or meditate); and then enter the holidays with a clean slate. You are alive, and were meant to experience and enjoy life!