5 ways to protect your emotional health over the holidays

"Talking to a relative we think negatively about because of their different beliefs or opinions once or twice a year makes it hard to build the trust and respect needed for difficult conversations," Elizabeth Dorrance Hall says. (Credit: Getty Images)

Just because it’s the holidays doesn’t mean the complexities of family dynamics disappear. These five tips can help you keep the season emotionally healthy.

Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, associate professor of communication in the Michigan State University College of Communication Arts and Sciences and director of its Family and Communication Relationships Lab, studies communication processes in close relationships, with a particular focus on family.

Here, Dorrance Hall shares five ways to stay emotionally healthy amid the pressure and stress holiday gatherings can bring:

Be real about your stress level

Carols, lights, and cheery holiday movies all proclaim feelings of joy, but the holidays can be an emotionally fraught time for a lot of people, whether you experience feelings of loneliness, stress, or just busyness.

“During the holidays, people have a lot on their minds. This mental tax can make it hard to give your full self to any conversation or experience,” says Dorrance Hall.

When the dinner table conversation shifts from pleasantly reminiscing about shared memories to telling embarrassing stories that you’re sick of hearing, you might be more inclined to have an impulsive response due to your built-up stress.

“If someone pushes your buttons and you’re already maxed out on your cognitive load, you’re less able to use what we call ‘cool system emotions,’ where we think rationally and slowly and carefully about our responses,” Dorrance Hall says. “Instead, you might be quicker to respond, more reactive.

Talking about the stress of the holidays with others who can relate may help relieve some pressure, freeing up space to have deeper conversations and be present with family members.

“Self-disclosure is often met with self-disclosure,” she says. “When building and maintaining relationships, vulnerability and trust are key: People feel safe to share how they’re really doing if you also are willing to honestly share that with them.”

Communicate throughout the year

A strong, happy, healthy relationship with family isn’t going to be built at one major holiday—it takes effort throughout the year.

“A lot of times, family relationships get deprioritized when schedules are busy and time is tight,” Dorrance Hall says. “It’s easy to prioritize your social circles outside of family because cultural norms say that family is supposed to be there for you no matter what. But if you don’t actively maintain your family ties, you can find yourself in the situation where it feels like you have nothing in common with your family.”

Some people have family members who live far away, so seeing them in person isn’t always feasible. Others make the conscious choice to distance themselves from their biological family and may adopt a chosen family—for example, friends who are like siblings. In both cases, relationships still need to be maintained.

“There’s a lot of pressure to have the perfect holiday,” says Dorrance Hall. “While I think having one day a year to connect in person is a wonderful opportunity, having an enjoyable holiday really comes from connecting all year round, whether it’s in person or via phone, text, or video calls.”

When it comes to connecting, it’s more about quality over quantity and really taking the time to get to know your family, biological or chosen.

“Talking to your cousins once per year at your family’s annual December gathering is not enough to make meaningful connections,” Dorrance Hall says.

Focus on what you have in common

Similarity is a key ingredient in building relationships; we are drawn to people who have similar hobbies, interests, and tastes as we do. This can make holidays hard for people who feel like they don’t have anything in common with their family, mainly because they don’t know what to talk about.

Dorrance Hall encourages people to discuss shared experiences to overcome differences.

“Something really cool about family relationships is that those relationships have existed for a long time, which can help us reconnect,” she says. “Reminiscing on old times—telling stories about loved ones that make everyone smile and laugh—is one way to do this. Remembering the people you all care about and the memories you collectively share can be a great way to connect.”

Be a good listener

Chances are, your entire family isn’t going to agree on the current events or politics—and chances are, someone is going to bring one of these topics up at a holiday gathering.

In such instances, your instinct may be to passionately defend your views, which can result in what ends up being a one-sided conversation.

“A lot of times in those conversations, you’re listening only to make your next point instead of listening to really understand the other person,” Dorrance Hall says. “Going back to the basics about how to be a good listener can be really helpful for those kinds of conversations.”

There’s nothing wrong with arguing for what you believe in, but it’s important to not automatically dismiss a viewpoint you disagree with.

“When we are listening, a really important thing to do is validate the other person’s feelings, beliefs, and emotions,” Dorrance Hall says. “Even if you don’t agree with the person, you can validate their views by recognizing the reasons for their beliefs, asking genuine follow-up questions, giving your undivided attention, and being curious about their experiences.”

The foundation for having healthy tough conversations requires trust, respect, and regular communication—not just a one-off interaction each year.

“Talking to a relative we think negatively about because of their different beliefs or opinions once or twice a year makes it hard to build the trust and respect needed for difficult conversations,” Dorrance Hall says.

Find an ally

Spending time with family over the holidays is complex. You can be happy to see them and grateful for the opportunity to be together, but still feel alone, especially if you don’t share the same values and beliefs as many of your family members.

To cope with this, Dorrance Hall recommends identifying an ally in the family: someone with whom you share similar beliefs and values, and who has been through experiences like yours. This person can be a sister, cousin, brother-in-law, parent—anyone you feel you can vent to or make knowing eye contact with at the dinner table.

“When you feel like you’re the only one that has a certain opinion or belief or experience, you can feel very isolated even though you’re surrounded by people who supposedly support you and love you,” Dorrance Hall says. “Having one other person in your family that you can lean on—and that you talk to regularly outside of the holidays—can make holiday get-togethers less stressful and overwhelming emotionally.”

Source: Michigan State University