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August 13, 2023

Dealing with Anxiety at Family Gatherings

Joyful strategies for stress-free holidays

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Dog hiding under blanket, as an example of holiday stress

iStockPhoto / mrm1977

Holidays have a way of heightening our emotions. From the stress of accomplishing everything on your to-do list before a family vacation, to the excitement of seeing loved ones unwrap the gifts you carefully selected at Christmas, our emotions are pretty much on or near the surface. And for many of us, social anxiety is one emotion that can creep in and cause us to approach even the merriest gatherings with a tinge of dread. Some studies suggest as many as half of adults experience some form of anxiety as a regular part of Christmas.

We at Santa.com sometimes feel it too. That’s why we reached out to Scott Mallon, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) in New Jersey for tips on dealing with anxiety. With over a dozen years of experience helping others, Scott offered 5 great tips for navigating large gatherings, overbearing relatives, and dysfunctional family situations you may want to consider to help ensure that YOU have a happy holiday, too! 

1. Understand your goals

Are you hoping to avoid your overly critical brother-in-law? Maybe you’re not too excited about seeing that cousin who slighted you at a recent family celebration. Perhaps you're hoping to be spared the endless questions about when you’re getting married or having a baby.

Whatever the scenario, ask yourself if your objective is to avoid unpleasant situations OR to take control in a way that works for you. When you let others dictate your behavior, you’re giving them control. Make sure you’re the one in control.

2. Expect but don’t assume 

It’s human nature to sometimes expect less of others but people have a way of surprising us, sometimes in great ways. Sure, you pretty much know how others may behave, but you can play a role in setting the tone. It's good to give others the benefit of the doubt, but if they fall into their typical behavior, minimizing your engagement and not taking the bait may give you a better outcome than in the past. 

3. Have a plan

Having a sense as to when you’ll arrive, when you’ll leave and what happens in between will help manage your expectations and anxiety. Do your own Q&A. Think about the questions or topics you’re not comfortable discussing and have answers prepared. With some friends and family members, you often know what to expect. Responding with answers like “I’m weighing my options,”  “I’ll let you know what I decide” or “I appreciate your concern” or politely excusing yourself are some ways to bring unpleasant chatter to a halt.

4. Focus on the positive

To help ensure you have a good time, think about the elements of the get-together that you like in advance of the gathering. Maybe someone is bringing an amazing dessert. Perhaps you look forward to seeing someone you’re fond of, but rarely see. Maybe your hosts have incredible holiday decorations you can walk around and admire. Think of all the hard work your hosts put into the celebration and express your appreciation for the extra effort.

5. Blend in

The last strategy suggestion is to blend in, or be the “gray person.” To help keep your anxiety to a minimum, think about blending in and let others grab the spotlight. Remaining low-key by keeping merry-making to a minimum could help keep awkward conversations and situations at a comfortable distance.

Lots of folks attend gatherings with a sense of dread. Putting yourself first and making sure that you enjoy the holidays as much as everyone else could be the greatest gift you ever gave yourself. Now, go celebrate!

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