The Holidays are Here! How to Handle the Stress of Family, Planning, and More

A few years back, my family started a yearly GoogleDoc to share our Christmas wish lists.  We each add some items we’d like, and family members then send texts and emails claiming what they intend to purchase.  I come from a family that likes to plan and get a head start on gift buying, so this year I got an invitation to the GoogleDoc in mid-October.  I don’t know if I’d even ordered my Halloween costume yet, so Christmas was nowhere near the top of my priority list.  But now that Halloween is in the rearview mirror and stores are showcasing their holiday decor, I’ve begun to turn my attention towards planning and prepping for the upcoming holidays.  This year, my husband and I are hosting both sides of our family for Thanksgiving, so I have found my mind more preoccupied than normal with a mental checklist of to-dos.  I know as the holiday gets closer, I will go through all the details in my head and worry if there’s something we’ve forgotten.

If you find yourself already feeling stressed, know that you’re not alone.  While many of us look forward to this time of year, it’s no surprise that it can raise those cortisol levels.  There’s so much to figure out: travel arrangements, who is going to cook what, finding a gift for the special man in your life that’s impossible to shop for, etc.  Besides the logistics of the holidays, there’s also the uncomfortable family dynamics and strained relationships that get highlighted this time of year.  You might already be feeling anxious about political conversations around the dinner table or how you’re going to handle the parent that is always doling out more advice than you asked for (or didn’t ask for).  Maybe you’re someone that likes for everything to look picture perfect and will wake up in the middle of the night worrying about how everything will turn out.  No matter what the case may be, there’s a lot that can distract us from the reasons we celebrate.  Below, I hope you will find some helpful tips to manage the stress of this season and make the most of your holidays.

Tip Number 1: Make a list!  I love a good to-do list.  It always feels so satisfying to cross something off, and getting everything out of my head and onto paper helps me keep track of all the moving parts.  I’ve also noticed over time that making a list helps ease the loop of to-dos that can circle around in my brain. Research even shows that list making can be a helpful strategy for reducing anxiety.  It gives me more of a sense of peace and control and frees up my brain for other things.  Whether it’s on your phone, in a notebook, or on a dry erase board for the whole family to see, try putting all your tasks in one visible spot and enjoy the satisfaction of checking things off.

Tip Number 2: Take one bite of the elephant at a time.  Desmund Tutu, South African Anglican Bishop and theologian, once said, “there is only one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time”.  What he meant by this is that when something seems overwhelming or daunting, remember to take on a little bit at a time.  You don’t have to accomplish or figure out everything at once.  Take your time preparing for everything you want to accomplish and break it up into small, manageable chunks. 

Tip Number 3: Ground yourself in the present.  While it can be fun planning, it’s easy to get too into planning mode and lose track of what’s going on in the moment.  If you find that you’re having a hard time being present for your family or your job, take a few moments to center yourself with a simple mindfulness technique.  Try this: Find a comfortable seat and take a few deep breaths in and out.  Then, notice 3-5 things around you that you can see.  Name them quietly in your head or out loud if that feels comfortable.  Next, notice 3-5 things that you can feel.  Then, 3-5 things that you can hear.  If you can smell or taste anything, go through those senses, too. With each one, name them silently or out loud.  This exercise helps to bring your attention back to your body and your surroundings, things that can get neglected when we’re lost in our heads.  Try this simple grounding technique if you find yourself feeling stressed or overwhelmed.

Tip Number 4: Practice handling drama.  If the holidays bring out tension in your family, take some time to think through how you want to handle potential issues in a healthy way.  If you’re worried about snapping at a family member, practice what you’d like to say out loud ahead of time.  If you’re worried about being criticized for your parenting, try something like, “I’m so grateful for how much you care about my children, but I would appreciate it if you would support me as a parent, even when you disagree with my decisions”.  Or, if the political conversations start to get too heated, think of something to say like, “I love how passionate our family is about our country and our values, but let’s not let our differences get in the way of why we’re all here to celebrate”.  Thinking through some healthy responses ahead of time may help to lower your stress and make it easier to set boundaries and handle the situation when it arises.

Tip Number 5: Focus on what’s most important.  At the end of the day, what really matters the most to you about the holidays? Spend some intentional time thinking about that question and let your answer guide you this season.  You may be hoping that all the food will be delicious and the table will be magazine worthy, but if that’s not really your top priority, don’t let it take too much of your time or effort.  Whether it’s spending quality time with loved ones, taking time to pause and rest, or stepping away from work, prioritize what’s most meaningful. 

I hope these tips will help you during this crazy and joyful time of year.  If you want to learn more about how to handle stress, family dynamics, or other struggles in life, feel free to reach out and schedule a therapy appointment or consultation call with me here.  

Grace Guyton is a therapist in training, pursuing her License in Marriage and Family Therapy. Grace sees individuals and couples in her Atlanta therapy practice, and helps people dealing with stress & anxiety, family issues, boundaries, and grief. To learn more about Grace Guyton, visit her bio page here.

About Grace Guyton

Grace Guyton is a therapist in training, pursuing her License in Marriage and Family Therapy. Grace sees individuals and couples in her Atlanta therapy practice, and helps people dealing with stress & anxiety, family issues, boundaries, and grief. To learn more about Grace Guyton, visit her bio page here.