After a 2020 holiday season marked by video chat dinners, vaccines have allowed us to travel more freely and celebrate with our loved ones once again.
But after a relentless two-year pandemic, political strife, and overall instability, reuniting with your family can be… a lot. Preparing yourself mentally and emotionally for the festivities to come can make for holidays filled with joy and delicious food, as opposed to bickering and passive aggression.
Remember we’re all carrying baggage
As of June 2020, more than 40 percent of Americans said they were struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse. Over 30 percent said they felt anxious or depressed, while more than 26 percent reported symptoms of trauma- and stress-related disorders due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
[Related: What mental health professionals have learned six months into pandemic care]
The current health crisis has hit us all pretty hard. And we’re all carrying trauma whether or not we’ve been diagnosed with a mental health condition, says Frank Anderson, a psychiatrist and author of Transcending Trauma: Healing Complex PTSD With Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy.
“COVID has come in waves, and every time something new happens, we’re retraumatized by it,” Anderson explains.
The negative impact of the pandemic on our mental health is what experts call chronic trauma: a succession of repetitive events over a prolonged period of time that affects us psychologically. Everything we’ve experienced—lockdown uncertainty, the hope for vaccinations, frustration over politics, and the fear of the delta variant—has left a mark that leaves us more vulnerable and sensitive to the world around us.
With that in mind, know that everyone in your family is going to arrive with a little extra baggage this holiday season. Understanding that may help you empathize with them and be more patient when you feel things are taking a turn for the worse.
After two years of not being able to spend time with our relatives, it’s natural to want everything to be absolutely perfect. But even during pre-COVID times, family reunions were rarely flawless, and you should expect them to be extra-flawed this time around.
“It’s like a Disney vacation—you pay so much money for your kids to have the most perfect time and more often than not, something goes wrong,” Anderson says.
The high pressure of trying to make the most out of the holidays after two years apart, combined with the desire to have special moments with each and every one of your loved ones is a recipe for disaster, Anderson says. Instead, he recommends that you sit down before your departure, think about your expectations, and try to make them realistic.
“Don’t stress about every little thing, or you’ll end up obsessing over them,” he says. “Just think about the food, for example. In your head it’s probably going to be the best dinner ever, but maybe the turkey will be a bit dry. And that’s ok!”
Bringing that awareness to other members of your family can also help, but be careful how you go about it. Telling them up-front that they should lower their expectations will feel like you’re trying to impose yours, which could prompt confrontation. Instead, Anderson recommends that you ask them what they want to happen. Just planting the inquiry in their heads is enough for them to start thinking about it.
Get your own place to stay
Maybe your plans entail your entire family—parents, aunts, grandparents, nieces, cousins, in-laws, dogs, turtles, significant others—sharing a lovely holiday weekend under the same roof. Ideally, this could be an incredible opportunity to spend time together and warm your heart with some much-needed family love.
But spending a prolonged time in a tight space with a bunch of people, no matter how or how much you’re related, can be quite stressful. This is why, if possible, Anderson recommends you find your own place to stay.
This may cause some trouble, as someone in your family might be offended. But having somewhere else to go will help you in two very practical ways. First, you’ll likely be a lot more comfortable if you don’t have to share an inflatable mattress with one of your cousins, and second, it will allow you to take a break whenever you need it.
A hotel, an Airbnb, or a friend’s house are all good options. Just make sure that wherever you’re staying isn’t also hosting any social events, and you can allow yourself the time and space to take a breather.
Remind people what you’re there for
Avoiding confrontation should be the first and most important rule for any family gathering. But the real challenge is to restrain yourself when someone really wants to start a fight. Ignoring them may be the best solution, but some might take your cold shoulder as coals for their fire, making matters even worse. Instead, when things start to get hairy, Anderson suggests reminding yourself—and others—about why you took a trip to spend the holidays together in the first place.
“Love and connection—that’s why we do it,” he says. “Instead of participating in an argument or responding to aggressive rhetoric, tell the other person you don’t want to fight. Remind them you’re there to hang out, to have a good time, and that you’ve missed them.”
It may not be an infallible solution. But if you can get the other person to remember what they’re there for, then maybe they’ll finally drop whatever point they were trying to make and concentrate on enjoying some good ol’ family fun.
Always have an exit strategy
Unfortunately, the pandemic has also ignited a high level of political tension across the country. This means that no matter how much you try to avoid it, you’re likely to eventually find yourself in the middle of a conversation where someone is going to get hurt or angry.
It’s ok—this doesn’t mean you’ve failed in preventing a fight. It just means you’re human.
But before you put on your war face and prepare to throw a lovely family evening out the window, exercise your exit strategy and take a break. Your way out can be whatever you want or whatever your current setup allows. Maybe there’s a secluded room you can go to to be alone and calm yourself down. Or maybe you can go for a walk or a drive, or if you brought your dog along this may be the perfect time to use your pal as an excuse and subtract yourself from a possibly disastrous equation.
The key is not to wait until you’re angry before you decide to abort the mission. Give yourself tiny breaks, even if you don’t think you need them. Staying centered will help you enjoy yourself and your family a whole lot more.
But if you do have to flee the scene, Anderson emphasizes the importance of playing as a team.
“If you’re going with your significant other and your kids, for example, also be mindful of their wants and needs,” he explains. “Maybe you can facilitate a break for them, or you can take turns going to family events in case things get a bit intense.”
Do what’s best for you
Family may be family, but sometimes being around the people you share blood with may be enormously detrimental to your mental health. It happens, and in times like these when you might feel more sensitive and vulnerable, the best you may be able to do for yourself is to not see them at all.
“Some families may be downright toxic and people may be better just staying away if they don’t feel up to it,” Anderson says. “But if that’s the case for you, I wouldn’t recommend you spend the holidays alone.”
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A 2014 survey from the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that around 24 percent of people with a mental health condition find that the holidays make their condition a lot worse. For those without a diagnosis, it may be just a case of the Holiday Blues, but historically, people tend to feel sadder around the end-of-year festivities. (Although contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t mean there’s a higher suicide rate around this time.)
So if you’re avoiding blood relatives this year, Anderson recommends you seek out your chosen family—friends, colleagues, neighbors, your community at large. And if you don’t have anybody to spend the holidays with, you can always volunteer at a church or another organization that interests you.
“It’s like with the oxygen masks in planes,” says Anderson. “You need to help yourself before you can help others.”