Holiday stress is all about expectations

It may have more to do with the ideas in your head than the annual meltdown over the turkey.
Black family with kids and seniors beating back holiday stress around a white dinner table
Multi Generation Family Celebrating Thanksgiving Deposit Photos

This post has been updated. It was originally published on November 25, 2015.

For most people, family gatherings during the holidays are rarely stress-free. Maybe you have that cousin who ruins dinner by igniting political debates, or the turkey is burnt, or your relatives won’t stop asking you about what you’ll do after you finish school.

Sometimes these situations are small, unpleasant blips in otherwise enjoyable celebrations. But for some, the feelings go deeper—many people dread the holidays, becoming stressed or anxious in the weeks leading up to a family get-together. Why is that familial stress especially potent during the holidays? Popular Science spoke with a few experts to understand what causes that stress and steps that individuals and families can take to offset it.

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Feeling stressed out by the people you love can feel isolating, but if you’re one of the people for whom this is the case, you’re far from alone. There isn’t much hard data on this, but several experts told Popular Science that many or most people feel some degree of stress surrounding their families. And though some people stress about it more than others because of their personalities or family history, the stress itself is a “very normal” feeling, says Pamela Regan, a psychology professor at California State University in Los Angeles.

By definition, stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from demanding circumstances. That can have both psychological and physical effects. “If you feel anxious, rushed, or pressured, your body changes—your heart rate rises and some people say they feel nauseous,” says Terri Orbuch, a relationship expert and sociology professor at Oakland University. Usually, these effects are short-lived, but over time the effects of stress can take a toll on the body, especially if an individual doesn’t know how to handle his stress well. “Many psychological theories look at the accumulation of stress—if we don’t figure out some positive coping mechanisms, we’re not able to reduce the effects of current and future stress,” Orbuch adds.

But, as Orbuch points out, the events themselves aren’t inherently stressful—it’s our perception of them that stresses us out.

So why do we get stressed about seeing family, and around the holidays in particular? Expectations are one of the biggest reasons—we watch Christmas specials or remember celebrating Thanksgiving as children and anticipate a Rockwellian experience, but, often, that’s simply not a reality. “We think this should be a perfect time, the food will be perfect, and our conversations will be respectful. But when our realities don’t match that, we get frustrated,” Orbuch says. The holidays can also be a time where we’re reminded of what we don’t have, Regan adds, further highlighting the celebration’s non-idyllic qualities.

Sometimes those realities don’t match up to fantasy simply because we’re human. Grandma may no longer be capable of cooking an entire feast on her own, even if she wants to; relatives’ unpleasant or grating behavior doesn’t cease on holidays, despite their best efforts. In most cases, we’re just not capable of creating that Rockwellian ideal. And these days, that picture of the happy nuclear family is even further from our experience. More people have more complex family structures—parents divorce and remarry, families blend—and as a result, traditions clash. Those traditions are deeply rooted in our religion, identities, and childhoods—in short, they are emotionally charged, and celebrating holidays in a new way can bring its own form of disappointment and tension.

“Grown siblings start to behave as if they’re eight years old.”

Families also bring special forms of baggage. Even for the closest families, conflicts do happen, especially when people are confined to a limited space during family gatherings that last for days. “Because conflict is a normal part of relationships, the closer you are and the more you self-disclose, and the more you hear things you don’t like,” Regan says. People returning to their parents’ houses for holidays may feel guilty for not being as close as they once were, or family members’ habits that may have been innocuous when you were all living under the same roof now seem intolerable. Sometimes, as we work through the discomfort of shifting familial roles (kids growing up, parents getting older), we snap back into old behavioral paradigms: “I’ve seen this myself—grown siblings start to behave as if they’re eight years old. They tap into long-buried habits and actions,” Regan adds.

Even though there are lots of ways family gatherings can go wrong, most of the time people can forget these unpleasant and distressing interactions relatively quickly. “Once relationships are established, they are resilient. They can really weather a lot. That’s what we see in the literature,” Regan says. “People think, ‘This is the family I’ve got, and it may not be perfect, but we can get through this.’”

Occasionally, though, disastrous family gatherings can have long-term effects, either on an individual’s health due to accumulated stress, or souring the familial relationships themselves.

If you find yourself dreading the annual family gathering, there are steps you can take to mitigate the negative effects, both as an individual and as a family. “The best thing you can do is to manage your expectations, to set realistic ones so that you don’t get frustrated or angry around the holidays,” Orbuch says. There’s no reason to assume that this family gathering will be different than any others, and preparing for that mentally can offset some of the disappointment you may feel if your Christmas celebration is more National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation than It’s A Wonderful Life.

There are ways to structure the family gatherings to reduce the temptation to over-hype the holiday. One friend of Regan’s has such a complex extended family that they realized it was too stressful to have Thanksgiving on the designated calendar day—instead, every year they all get together the weekend after. That simple shift not only reduced the family members’ stress surrounding the logistics of the meal, but also made their expectations for the meal more realistic, Regan says.

If you’re the person organizing or preparing the meal at the holiday gathering, you can do a lot to make the experience less stressful for your family, Orbuch says. You can make sure that you serve food that is respectful of guests’ dietary needs. If there are kids coming, you can set up a play area so their parents won’t worry about them getting into trouble. Keep the mood light, keep people laughing; you can guide the conversation to avoid topics that you know are stressful, or organize an activity after dinner, like a non-competitive board game, so everyone isn’t sitting around talking and trying to be pleasant.

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Of course, these mitigation strategies require families to acknowledge that their holidays are less than perfect, to look the problem squarely in the face. And not all families are ready to do that. So if you’re going to be a guest at a gathering and are preparing to cope with the stress, Orbuch recommends that you have a conversation with your partner about how to support one another if things get tense. You can make sure you arrive at the gathering with your own method of transport so that you don’t feel trapped if you feel like you need to leave. If you are dreading the big gathering with all the extended family, try implementing a tradition of your own to give the holiday new meaning for those closest to you.

There is also a strategy that most of us don’t consider: Simply opting out of the family gathering. “If it’s going to be that awful, if you dread going [to the gathering] to the point where you are anxious and depressed about it for weeks leading up to the event, you don’t have to suffer through,” Regan says. You don’t have to feel guilty about making an excuse if it’s necessary to prevent real psychological damage—people put a lot of time and energy into saving face, and you might provide relief to both yourself and the organizers of the gathering by saying you aren’t feeling well or that you have to work. It’s not worth traumatizing yourself just to save face, Regan adds.

But for most of us with the typical amount of family baggage, going to the annual holiday dinner is a compromise worth making. The event might be vaguely unpleasant at the time, but you’ll still go because it’s important to someone important to you. That ephemeral unpleasantness will strengthen the relationship, and those benefits are long-term.

“Even though we just talked about all those stressors, it’s definitely possible to relieve stress and maintain harmony at these family holiday gatherings,” Orbuch says. With realistic expectations and a bit of a sense of humor, your stressful holidays could even transform into cherished family moments.