Is the holiday season really the most wonderful time of the year? The holidays bring joy, but they also deliver stress. We want to spend quality time with our families, but we also need to maintain some personal space. Some people count down the days until the celebrations laden with tradition, while others plead excuses to avoid obligations.  

A survey of 2,000 Americans who traveled to visit family for the holidays in 2021 found that while 95% of respondents believe it’s important to spend the holidays with family, it’s not without challenges: 

  • Respondents said they can spend an average of three hours and 54 minutes with their extended family before they are ready for a break.  
  • 75% hit a point at which they need to escape for a moment alone. 
  • 30% of respondents believe they would enjoy the holiday season more if their family wasn’t all under the same roof. 

But family isn’t the only holiday stressor. Another survey of 2000+ people shows that while 21% stress over family gatherings, there were other culprits that contribute to their stress during this time of year: 

  • 28% financial demands 
  • 18% disrupted routines 
  • 18% traveling 

Being over-scheduled, choosing the right gifts and having to work harder to remain healthy also contribute to people’s holiday woes.  

Related: 8 Holiday Sanity Savers 

So, how can we ready ourselves to face these seasonal stressors so that our holidays don’t turn toxic? Here are five cognitive strategies to get you through the holiday season: 

  1. Ditch the ugly Christmas sweater, and don the Teflon vest.  

If you have had difficult conversations with your family over the past few years, expect them to return for the holiday season. As history repeats itself, you can expect the same arguments, frustrations, challenges and resentments to rear their ugly heads again, amid all of those ugly Christmas sweaters. Do your parents press you on when you will finally settle down and get married? You can bet they’ll bring it up again at the dinner table in front of others. If you are unemployed or just got laid off, expect your aunt and uncle to quiz you about the next steps in your life and what you are doing to find another job. If there are political differences in your family, expect polarizing conversations around today’s charged political landscape to arise.  

The key to dealing with all of these stressful situations is to anticipate and plan for them. Forecast what questions will be asked of you and prepare for them by having responses ready (think of it like preparing for a job interview). As you listen to Aunt Karen’s questions, deploy diaphragmatic breathing techniques so you don’t become triggered. Breathing is the most underrated technique for getting your body’s physiology under control. It not only oxygenates you in the full and replenishing way you need, but it sends clear signals to your body’s nervous system that there is no real danger. And of course, there’s no danger. Your family loves you and means well; they only want the best for you.  

Breathe your way through those challenging times and envision yourself wearing a Teflon vest. I speak often about leaders being like Teflon because the chemical is waterproof, cuts down on friction and nothing sticks to it! When you put on your Teflon vest, you let criticism and probing questions roll off your back with no damage done.   

2. Try bringing a new pair of glasses to the holiday party.   

A perceptual lens is formed by recognizing your thoughts and identifying the core thought that is driving your reaction. But there are lots of alternative lenses. As true as your go-to lens may feel, there are always multiple ways to see any given situation.  

Go into the holidays being willing to change your own lens, rather than expecting your family to change theirs. If you are someone who always fights back or gets triggered during heated conversations, could you try on a new pair of glasses and seek to understand other peoples’ views? Even if this lens may be diametrically opposed to your own view, be interested and curious. Don’t argue, and don’t challenge. Instead bring a new pair of glasses to the holiday party: glasses with curious, understanding, compassion and love lenses.  

3. Be realistic in your expectations, and disregard perfectionism.  

The holidays are all about sky-high expectations and grand disappointments. We build up this magical time of the year to what we see in all of those Hallmark Christmas movies. We envision how the perfect family gathering is supposed to be, and then reality hits: someone comes down with COVID, the turkey is overcooked and bland, your favorite cousin is a no show or the present you were hoping for wasn’t actually under the tree. Whatever it is that goes wrong during the holidays, let go of that Norman Rockwell painting of perfectionism and simply go with the flow.  

Remember that you cannot control everything, but what you can control is how you respond to what happens. You are in charge of how you respond to the inevitable disappointments. You shouldn’t go into the holidays thinking that everything will be absolutely awful, but if you have realistic expectations, you are less likely to be disappointed. And if you get pleasantly surprised that everything goes beautifully, that’s even better!  

4. There’s “me” in merry. 

Our social calendars fill up quickly during the holiday season, and it can be hard to practice self-care if you are too busy hustling and bustling. Blocking off time each day for yourself is essential, even if it means saying no to some invites. Do your best to get quality sleep, eat well, exercise, meditate, engage in a hobby you enjoy and listen to your favorite music, whether that’s holiday tunes or not!   

5. Remember the reason for the season. 

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanzaa, or even Festivus, this is the time of year for gratitude. We may not make our gratitude intentional every day, but the holiday season is the perfect time to do so. Instead of just holiday shopping lists, make a gratitude list. Set aside some time each day to practice awareness of everything you are grateful for during your day. Here at JMA, we are very grateful for you, and we wish you and yours a very happy holiday season!