By Sarah Woods, Ph.D.,
Director of Behavioral Health, Family and Community Medicine
This holiday season, many people will be spending time with relatives they’ve only seen virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic. As in-laws, parents, siblings, and others come together again to celebrate, they’ll likely bring along food, gifts – and plenty of diverse opinions.
These new dynamics can add to the elevated stress people often experience around the holidays. When family relationships are strained, feelings of stress produce cortisol, a crucial hormone made by the adrenal glands that acts as a built-in alarm system for your body. Elevated cortisol levels can induce serious symptoms such as:
- Disrupted sleep patterns
- Reduced pain tolerance
- Shortness of breath
Family-related stress also carries long-term health implications. Recently, I co-authored research that shows strained family relationships are associated with increased rates of serious chronic conditions, such as frequent headaches, stomach issues, and even strokes, compared with stressful intimate partner relationships. Conversely, healthier family relationships were associated with lower rates of these conditions over time.
While we can’t always change our family dynamics, we can limit the health risks associated with family stress.
UT Southwestern follows a unique clinical model to make this challenge easier for patients and families. We integrate behavioral health care into three of our Family Medicine clinics to make managing general and mental health seamless and accessible – all without a referral and within one system:
- UT Southwestern Family Medicine Clinic
- UT Southwestern Family Medicine at Texas Health Dallas
- Parkland Family Medicine Clinic
Our primary care doctors often see members of the whole family, and we consider each patient’s health needs in the context of their family situation.
Every patient’s stress level is unique. However, these seven general tips can help you enjoy the holiday season with more cheer and less stress.
Related reading: COVID-19 distress: Managing your mental health in a pandemic
1. Listen to your body
Familial stress affects everyone differently. Some people experience chronic pain. Others have migraines or trouble falling or staying asleep, and some feel sick to their stomach. I sometimes find myself holding my breath.
One commonality is that many people recognize their physical reactions to stress before they acknowledge the emotion that causes the response.
When you start to feel those “stress feelings,” focus on where you experience symptoms in your body and try to reframe the physical sensations by identifying what made you start feeling that way. Talking about physical reactions can sometimes be easier than talking about emotions. If you continue experiencing stress-related symptoms, I recommend talking with your doctor or a therapist.
2. Adjust your expectations
Throughout the holidays, and always, we must be gentle with ourselves. We have heightened expectations around the holidays – everything should be perfect, meaningful, and beautiful. But remember it’s a season of gratitude. Think about what you’re grateful for and put it in writing. Focusing on the good can help you relax and cope with the not-so-good.
3. Strategize about your in-laws
It’s helpful if you and your partner are on the same page before visiting with in-laws for the holidays. Discuss exactly how much time you wish to spend with family members and what conversations might be off-limits. Stay attuned to each other’s signals: a hand gesture, a wink, or even a touch on the shoulder will work.
I am a co-host of a family scientist-led podcast, Attached. In episode 18, “Don’t Fight With Other Parents, Including Your In-Laws,” we discuss how our relationships with our in-laws affect our family units.
4. Press pause on discussing differing opinions
Family members are full of opinions – but their perspectives don’t always match yours. Differing political or religious views, for example, have impacted or even ended family relationships. When tensions run deep, some people feel a sense of loss after realizing they no longer recognize or relate to certain family members.
If you find yourself in the middle of a difficult conversation about education, careers, parenting, politics, or any number of subjects, try saying: “I love you/respect you. Can we put this conversation on pause for now and talk about something else?”
Just knowing you have a pause button could relieve some of your stress.
5. Ignore ‘advice’ from non-experts
Relationship guidance is everywhere. Well-meaning people are sharing their personal experiences under the guise of advice on social media, blogs, podcasts – you name it. And while the platform they share it on isn’t a problem, a lack of credentials is.
When searching for tips on managing relationships, look to someone who is a licensed mental health provider. My podcast co-hosts and I, for example, are trained as family therapists and continually conduct research on relationships.
Opinion-based advice can make strained relationships even more stressful. Research-backed advice can help you ease existing tension and prevent it from occurring in other relationships.
6. Protect your buttons
No one knows how to push your buttons like family. Unless you practice intentionally shifting those relationships, you tend to relate to each other in the same ways and experience the same conflict patterns.
The anticipation of conflict is sometimes the worst part. Practice how you will handle stressful conversations or behave toward particular individuals. And try not to push your family members’ buttons, either.
7. Ask for support
Even the best-intentioned family members can derail your personal goals. What does that look like? A mother who fills the cupboards with foods you no longer eat, even though she knows you’ve changed your eating habits. An uncle who asks about your job prospects when he knows you’ve been unemployed a long time.
Before you encounter these situations, think about how you might encourage your family members to help you. Instead of getting angry, consider this sentence opener: “It would help me feel supported if you …” and then include gentle, specific actions your loved one can take to help you.
Related reading: 6 ways to improve wellness during the pandemic
Stress is normal – but it shouldn’t rule (or ruin) your health
We are all hardwired to experience and respond to stress. It pulls us into relationships; it protects us from threats. However, excess stress wears and tears on our bodies. The best holiday gifts you can give yourself are equal doses of self-care and grace.
This holiday season, focus on being proactive, setting boundaries, and reducing your stress. Your body will thank you. And in the process, you might experience the best holiday you have ever had!