Skip the stress this holiday season

The holidays are almost upon us. For most, this is traditionally a joyful season with loved ones but it can also be stressful with planning, travel and time with family you may not always agree with. Dr. Yasmine Omar, assistant professor with the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, shares ways to help defuse stressful situations.

A family sitting around a candle-lit holiday meal, while one person stands to carve a turkey.There’s no “perfect” holiday

“Perfection is a distracting goal to aim for, shifting the focus of our efforts from savoring special moments to covering up perceived personal flaws” Omar said. “Not only is that exhausting, but it is also likely to result in disappointments and exacerbation of anxiety or mood difficulties because of how unlikely we are to hit our target of what ‘perfection’ looks like.”

Omar recommends recognizing that it is the imperfect, vulnerable human moments that foster connection and help take the pressure away from a “perfect” holiday. She says to focus more on what you enjoy about the holidays and being present with your loved ones — imperfections and all.

“Looking back, how many of your favorite holiday memories were based on our traditional definition of ‘perfection’ anyway?” she said.

Tackling the first holiday with in-laws

Before getting together with your partner’s family, Omar suggests discussing traditions with your partner to get an idea of what to expect and plan for. “Practice openness with different traditions and go into the events with a curious outlook without assuming what a tradition or ritual signifies for this particular family,” Omar said.

Handling awkward family conversations

We’ve all been there when that uncle brings up politics or a grandmother asks what’s going on in your dating life. “Assuming there has not been an ongoing dynamic of abuse with a family member, it may help to mentally tune into what this family member’s intention is with their charged statement or question.” Omar said. “Are they trying to protect? Connect? Educate? Feel heard?”

In an effort to understand the family member’s true intention, Omar suggests not personalizing their words and instead set a verbal boundary that doesn’t feel as charged or conflict-provoking.

“For example, if your grandmother asks, ‘Why won’t you get married already?’ We can possibly translate that to ‘I care about your future; will you be OK?’ And respond by saying ‘I don’t want to talk about that right now, but I’m doing OK,’” Omar said.

Find yourself in a sticky conversation? Omar said it’s possible to gently de-escalate the situation. “Some helpful phrases can be ‘I hear you, but I don’t want to focus on this subject right now,’ or ‘Let’s focus on enjoying our time together tonight and revisit this later,’ and focusing the conversation on shared memories or other points of connection.”

Grief and the holidays

Grief can be more pronounced during the winter months as nothing feels the same as it did before. Omar recommends acknowledging those feelings and making space for grief as that can help a person adjust to spending the holidays without a loved one who may have died.

“People may have different needs or ways of grieving, so it is important to discuss with other loved ones whether they are emotionally ready to engage in discussion of memories or referring to the deceased loved one during the holidays,” Omar said.

Learn more about the Baylor Medicine Psychiatry Clinic.

By Anna Kiappes

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