Many people feel anxious and stressed as we approach the holidays with frequent party invites, pressure to buy perfect presents, endless eating and drinking, and requests to report on last year’s good, bad, and ugly. And holiday cheerfulness can make grief and loneliness harder to bear.
Challenging family dynamics and the high expectations of enjoying togetherness can make us more reactive—quick to feel angry, sad, or alone. But you can start preparing now to deal with these hot-button moments. Here are some tips that can help, inspired by eastern practices.
- Expect the expected. Has someone made you feel terrible at every recent holiday? If so, it’ll likely happen again. How will you respond? How will you take care of yourself in that moment? This would be a good time to set an intention to keep good boundaries. Figure out what is most important to you about this holiday and stay laser focused on it.
- Don’t take the bait. Focus on your breath instead. If you feel stirred up, try slowing things down with deep breaths for a minute or two. No one has to know. If needed, excuse yourself for a few minutes and take a short walk (or go to the bathroom). Refocus your attention to feel grounded and centered. You can always process what came up later in your own space.
- Get into the deliciousness. Enjoy the whole eating experience with all of the flavors, aromas, and textures. Who cooked each dish? Where did the food come from? Who are the farmers who raised the turkey? This line of thinking will help you appreciate all that went into bringing the food to the table.
- Appreciate the people in the room. If you’ve ever been alone on a holiday, you’ll know it’s usually a lot better to be with imperfect friends and family. Try to find something to appreciate in as many people there as you can. Keep it simple. If you can’t find anything, get curious. Why is this person so hard to like? What happened to cause such hardness or ineptitude? And what is it about you that lets this person get under your skin? You don’t have to find the answers, just ask the questions. And give yourself permission to skip over those who have caused you significant harm.
- Bring in empathy. Have you ever been scared or hurt? Maybe you weren’t so friendly or even likable then. Others around the table may be hurting, especially those tough ones. Try to soften and send some compassion their way.
Emotional wounds and deep-rooted ways of relating to family can leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed, enough to cause middle-agers to feel like brooding teenagers again. But these dynamics can change. Try out these strategies. It’s okay if you don’t develop a comfort with them right away. There’s always next year and all the dress rehearsals in between.
Good luck and enjoy the holiday season with all of its complexities.
Dr. Marni Chanoff is a psychiatrist, specializing in integrative medicine, and an Ayurvedic consultant. She is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital and has a private practice in Cambridge. You can follow her Integrative Health Blog here.
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