Ask a Therapist: How Can I Deal With Pressure to See Family for the Holidays?

McLean’s Guide to Managing Mental Health Around the Holidays

Ask a Therapist: How Can I Deal With Pressure to See Family for the Holidays?

Elvis once crooned about feeling blue at Christmas time—and we’re here to tell you: It’s perfectly normal to feel that way.

There are a variety of reasons why your days may not be merry and bright around the holiday season. It can be the jam-packed social calendar, deadlines at work, the loss of a loved one, sunless winter days, or all of the above.

According to the American Psychological Association, 38% of people surveyed said their stress increased during the holiday season, which can lead to physical illness, depression, anxiety, and substance misuse. The reasons given: lack of time, financial pressure, gift-giving, and family gatherings.

To make matters worse, the National Alliance on Mental Illness noted that 64% of individuals living with a mental illness felt that their conditions worsened around the holidays.

However, there are ways in which we can prepare ourselves and hopefully deflect some of the increased stress of the holidays. It’s important to realize that we do have more control than we think we do. However, it’s equally important to realize that even if we put these ideas into practice and continue to feel overwhelmed or depressed, professional help is available.

We’ve identified six common issues that come up this time of year, as well as suggestions from our mental health experts for ways to address them.

1. You’re Lacking the “Holiday Spirit”

Being surrounded by cheeriness can be stigmatizing when you don’t feel the same level of enthusiasm as others.

The pressure to be social, happy, and present can make it difficult to speak up if you feel otherwise. You may also feel left out if your spiritual traditions aren’t the dominant ones on display this time of year.

What You Can Do About It

  • Recognize that you don’t need to force yourself to be happy and that it’s good to acknowledge feelings that aren’t joyful; remember that you are not alone in feeling this way
  • Avoid numbing or avoiding feelings by using alcohol or other substances, which worsen anxiety and depression
  • If possible, surround yourself with people who feel similarly; celebrate your traditions or create new ones

According to Elsa Ronningstam, PhD, a psychologist at McLean Hospital, “It’s important to understand that triggers for holiday angst come from many sources. Memories, stressful patterns that seem to occur every holiday, or potential new crises are common triggers,” she said.

Ronningstam added that preparing yourself by understanding how different triggers affect you can help reduce stress. Additionally, by finding out why you become anxious or sad around the holidays, you may be able to navigate the rest of the season.

Watch Now!

Feeling alone can be especially hard to handle during the holidays. Dr. Lisa Coyne helps us push back against feelings of loneliness.

2. You’re Overwhelmed by Grief and Loss

If you are living with grief, loss, trauma, or loneliness, it can be easy to compare your situation to others’, which can increase feelings of loneliness or sadness. Take time to check in with yourself and your feelings and have realistic expectations for how the holiday season will be.

If you are dealing with loss or grief, gently remind yourself that as circumstances change, traditions will change as well.

3. You’re Feeling Pressured to Participate in Activities—and Want No Part of Them

We all have our own personal history with holidays. We dream about the ways the holidays are supposed to be, which can be a dangerous perspective. We get caught up in wanting to do it all, but we can aim to set more realistic expectations for ourselves and others.

4. You’re Stressed About Giving Gifts

According to McLean’s Mark Longsjo, LICSW, it’s very common to get caught up in the commercialization and marketing of the holidays. We can feel stressed about spending on a strained budget or from trying to find just the right gift.

“Advertisers will take advantage of our susceptibility,” Longsjo said, “but we have the ability to put it in perspective and remind ourselves that we are the ones creating that anxiety, and we are the ones who can reduce it.”

Giving to others is not about spending money. And of course, what goes along with setting realistic expectations is maintaining a budget and being transparent.

5. There’s Not Much Sunlight at All, and It’s Affecting Your Mood

In the northern hemisphere, the holidays coincide with winter’s lack of available sunlight. Less exposure to natural light can lead to new or increased symptoms of depression.

Self-Care Is Important,
Especially During the Holidays

Sign up now for our webinar series supporting mental health and wellness.


6. You’re Alone or Feeling Isolated

While it’s true that many of us have friends and family to connect with during the holiday season, there’s also the danger of becoming isolated. If you are predisposed to depression or anxiety, it can be especially hard to reach out to others.

What To Do About It

Remind yourself of the people, places, and things that make you feel happy. Consider scheduling a regular call or video chat with friends on a weekly or biweekly basis so you don’t have to think twice about making the effort.

Take advantage of other ways to connect, including sending out holiday cards and communicating with family and friends by phone, text, email, and social media.

Calming activities, such as reading, meditating, and gratitude journaling, can be helpful if you don’t feel comfortable in social situations.

Don’t forget about self-care. We know the importance of a balanced diet, moderate exercise, and plenty of sleep, but because there are so many distractions and stressors this time of year, we lose sight of some of the basic necessities. We need to take care of ourselves and pay increased attention to ensuring we fulfill these areas of our lives as we get closer to the holidays.

Should I Talk to a Doctor?

Talk to your mental health professional or your primary care physician if you have been feeling anxious or depressed for more than two weeks, or if the holidays are long gone and you are still feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed.

Do you or a loved one need mental health care or support? McLean Hospital is here to help.

Call us now at 877.646.5272 to learn more about treatment fordepression, stress, or anxiety.


25 Tips for Dealing With Difficult Family Members During the Holidays

Ask a Therapist: How Can I Deal With Pressure to See Family for the Holidays?

The holidays are a tough time for many people. Whether you simply don’t get along with family members, or the current political climate is causing tension, holidays are hard. You might struggle with holiday depression or anxiety that is heightened by time spent with immediate and extended family. There are techniques to employ that can help you deal with difficult people.

Here are 25 tips for dealing with difficult family during the holidays:

1. Manage Your Expectations

“Look at your expectations for those with whom you are uncomfortable. Expectations can be a disappointment or a resentment waiting to happen. Expectations can be a self-made trap for our own reactivity.

Our attempts to change others usually result in their greater defensiveness and unwillingness to change. Observe others instead of reacting to them. If your ego and emotions become overloaded, excuse yourself and take a break and release your emotions.

Try not to take another person’s behavior personally, for they often do not know what they are doing.” – Mark Bigley, LCSW

2. Make a Solid Plan

“Think back to past family holidays and patterns that have persisted over time. Anticipate unhealthy patterns and have a plan to block those patterns from happening again. This is essential for self-protection and in developing new, healthier patterns.” – Paige Harnish, LISW, CMHIMP

“What are you able to plan beforehand to change any part of the situation during the visit? Different locations, different times (briefer visits, times for respite), different activities, setting boundaries about what you will be able to do/not do; suggesting some new alternatives or asking the person(s) with whom you are uncomfortable some questions about what they might to do differently.” – Mark Bigley, LCSW

3. Adjust Your Mindset

“We can choose to worry about what will happen or we can make a plan to reduce or eliminate such stress. Before leaving the house, take a soothing bath (with or without bubbles). Set the mood with soft music and dim lights.

Use essential oils lavender for a calming effect, jasmine or bergamot for anxiety. Focus on the positive traits of family members and recall happy family gatherings.

Having a calm mind before gathering with the family will aid in you being more tolerant and dealing with annoying behaviors.” – Nakpangi Thomas, PhD, LPC, TITC-CT

4. Protect Your Truth & Honor Your Peace

“Sometimes family holiday get-togethers feel as though tiptoeing through a minefield. To carefully navigate the dynamics, we may perceive our reactions and motivations compared to other people’s responses and behaviors.

Here are a few principles to consider practicing during stressful interactions: profess your experience, protect your truth, and do what is needed to soothe your system.

Application may look making a mental note of your emotion, reaffirming facts, and doing something to honor your peace.” – LaShara Shaw, LCPC

5. Find Common Ground

“Holidays can be full of excitement and joy, as we gather with loved ones and create memories to be cherished for a lifetime. This doesn’t mean that challenges with loved ones won’t arise.

During said times it’s important to focus on what matters the most vs trivial matters. Seek to find common ground with difficult family members. Be slow to speak, but quick to listen.

Furthermore, give off what you desire to receive in return and just maybe your efforts will be met in kind.” –  Keisha Williams, LICSW

6. Avoid THAT Family Member

“The holidays are a great time to be with family and create memories that would last a lifetime, however, there’s always that one family member that wants to know all your business, question your decisions, remind you of all the negative things you have going on in your life, and give their plans for your life.

When dealing with these family members, remember three things.

  1. You know what’s best for you and if they give great wisdom that may help keep it, if not respectfully dismiss it.
  2. Redirect the conversation with love. Ask them how they are doing and that you are glad to see them.
  3. Shift the atmosphere by using positive words and creating awareness of why you are here together. To make memories, love each other, and appreciate the value of your family.” – Shawndrika Cook, LPC

7. Ground Yourself

“The holidays are a wonderful time to be with family; however, it can create anxiety for those who have difficult family members. Take time for self-care and grounding yourself. Find common interests.

Steer clear of topics that can create differences; such as Politics and Religion. Make a plan ahead of time and remember not to take things personally or overthink. Relax and be mindful in the moment.

” – Lyndsy Mirasola, LCSW

“Practice deep breathing and some preventative meditation before the family event. You don’t want to arrive tense and stressed out. This will help you to be less reactive. You can also use your breath to keep calm when things get overwhelming.” – Chris McDonald, Licensed Therapist

8. Remove Yourself When You Can

“Remember that you’re allowed to have your own holiday traditions. You aren’t obligated to include unwanted family members, and you don’t owe difficult family members your time. It’s important that you remind yourself of that as frequently as you need. It can be helpful to have a safe person to check in with if things become difficult.” – Nicole Arzt, LMFT

9. Create & Keep Boundaries

“Establish and keep impeccable boundaries. If there’s a topic or behavior that is bounds for you (within reason) please state that up front and be clear. “It is unacceptable for you to smoke in my house and if you wish to do so you’ll need to leave.

” or “My dating life is not up for discussion.” And then, if necessary, restate those boundaries, “As I said, I’m not going to be discussing my personal life with you. Would you mind taking this spoon to the dining room? Thank you!” The re-direction at the end is helpful.

” – Lisa A. Curtis, LCSW, CASAC

“Don’t take the bait. Difficult family members can unknowingly or purposefully dredge up conflict. Simply respond by stating, ‘I am not going to discuss that topic with you.

’ Put a hard stop on the amount of time you will spend at holiday gatherings.

Two hours might be all you can safely manage, but you should feel proud of having spent that amount of time, which is enough for you to have maintained engagement with people you value.” – Stephanie Wijkstrom, MS, LPC, NCC

10. Practice Self-Care

“Before going to a family event that might set you off emotionally, engage in something that will help you relax, such as taking a nap, deep breathing, using essential oils, or partaking in a favorite hobby.” – Muriel Casamayor, LMFT

11. Be the One to Host the Event

“By hosting the holidays yourself, you can be in a little bit more control with those difficult family members. You can set the start and end time, as well as be in control of who is attending and even what is being served. Your house, your rules!” – Dr. Nicole Lacherza-Drew, Psy.D.

12. Avoid Controversial Topics

“Controversial topics, politics, religion, and social issues only lead to arguments and bad feelings. Instead, talk about work, school, sports, movies, books, food or even the weather. If the subject strays to a controversial topic say something noncommittal ‘Really?’ or ‘That’s interesting,’ then excuse yourself to go to another room or help the host.” – Steven Rosenberg, Ph.D.

“If you know certain topics lead to arguments or heated discussions, remind yourself that not engaging in them, changing the subject, or passively listening does not mean you are agreeing or complacent, it can also mean you refuse to energize anything that can lead to frustration and have chosen to protect yourself.” – Kara Kushnir, MSW, LCSW

14. Create a Signal

“Have a plan to respond to distressing situations. Maybe have a ‘code word’ that sends the signal that you’re feeling overwhelmed and need a quick way the situation. If you’re walking into an environment that you know is going to be stressful, think ahead about an exit strategy.” – James Cochran, Licensed Counselor and Co-host of Super Together

15. Be on the Same Page With Your Spouse

“Have an open dialogue with each other about your fears and expectations for potential holiday encounters. This will give you the opportunity to discuss strategies to deal with potential conflict. You can also be more in-tune with each other and notice if one of you is feeling uncomfortable.

When you prepare ahead of time and form a united front, you’ll be much better at dealing with your in-laws. While in the past, these occasions have contributed to more stress in their marriage, you now can weather them successfully because you were on the same page going in.

” – Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, MS, LCPC

16. Avoid Overindulgence

“Minimize your alcohol intake; this will allow you to maintain better control of your stress-tolerance and decision-making. If you keep your own emotional levels in check, then you will have a better chance of tolerating the ups and downs.” – Dr. Lindsay Israel, Psychiatrist

17. Listen to Your Body & Mind

“Trust your own internal compass and pay close attention to when you need to pace yourself. There may be times that you decide it is worth enduring some discomfort to receive the gains of connection. While, other times, you’ll decide that the discomfort is not worth the expense.” – William Schroeder, LPC

18. Bring a Happy Reminder

“This can be a favorite photograph, a funny text from a friend, or a silly cat video on . Anything that makes you smile or laugh can help relieve stress in a difficult situation. If you get overwhelmed, step away for a second and look at your happy reminder.” – Dr. Holly Schiff, Psy.D

19. Become an Objective Observer

“Rather than feeling stuck in an overwhelming situation, pretend to step back and watch what is happening around you as if you were watching a movie. It feels much different to observe than it does to get swept up in the experience.” – Jon Reeves, PhD, PLLC, Clinical Psychologist

20. Have Compassion for Yourself

“Practice self-compassion while you are with your family. Offer yourself the kindness you would a friend by saying ‘This is really hard’ or ‘I am sad that it is difficult to be with my family.’ Then ask yourself what you need and if you are able to meet that need then do it.” – Jessica McCoy, LMFT

21. Don’t Be Afraid to Say No

“Consider changing traditions that don’t involve people that aren’t aligned with who you are. Choose to excuse yourself from holiday activities that you don’t feel comfortable going to.

Remember, saying no to attending certain events or engaging in certain conversations doesn’t mean you don’t care about the people that are a part of them. It means that you are protecting your peace so you can continue to engage with people you care about without excess stress or resentment.

Loving others is so much better when you are loving yourself first.” – Margot Charkow-Ross, LCSW, LICSW

22. Up Your Communication

“Practice communicating from a position of ‘I.’ We sometimes focus on pointing out all the ways ‘you’ have it wrong, but the moment we step into a conversation about ‘you,’ we throw down the flag to start debating.

Take time to pause and think about your own reactions to difficult family members when they communicate with you. Sometimes taking a moment to clarify is helpful: ‘‘What I heard you say was…’ and then repeat what you heard. These can be white flag moments.

” – Kim McGuiness, M.Ed., LPC, NCC

“While you can’t change others, you can change how you’ll respond to them and this could have a positive ripple effect on your interactions with those trying individuals.

Create and rehearse a couple of simple statements in advance to help deflect tension when needed.

For example, you could say: ‘Thank you for your concern’ or ‘Let me think about that,’ and then switch topics to one that feels more comfortable for you.” – Dorlee Michaeli, MBA, LCSW

24. Make an Affirmation

“Affirmations are a secret weapon. What can you tell yourself that will keep conflict from escalating? It might sound silly to say things to yourself ‘I am a patient daughter’ or ‘May you be at ease,’ but if you believe the sentiment, it will change your thoughts.” – Chea Weltchek,  Clinical Mental Health Counselor

25. Ask for Help

“Working with a trained licensed professional counselor in advance of events with difficult family members can be helpful. Knowing how to understand your emotions, communicate how you feel, and ground yourself are strategies to use when dealing with difficult family members.” – Kim McGuiness, M.Ed., LPC, NCC

How to Find a Therapist to Help You Deal With Difficult Family

To find a therapist to help you unpack and address any family issues, you could explore options from an online directory, ask someone you know and trust if they have any recommendations, or seek a referral from a nearby doctor’s office. With insurance coverage, the out-of-pocket costs per session could be very low.


Dealing With Holiday Stress

Ask a Therapist: How Can I Deal With Pressure to See Family for the Holidays?

Unplugging the Christmas Machine

There are many dynamics that can make the holidays stressful: stress due to orchestrating a perfect family celebration, holiday bills, losses due to divorce or death in the family, crowded social calendars, etc.

In the book «Unplugging the Christmas Machine» by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli, the «one common concern among most that is universal is the yearning for a simpler, less commercial, more soul-satisfying celebration.

A universal wish to end the year with a festival of renewal that rekindles our spirit brings us closer to the people we care about, and brings light and laughter to the dark days of winter. We want to ward off the commercial excesses of the season and create an authentic, joyful celebration in tune with our unique needs and desires.»

According to child experts, what children really want more than anything else during the holidays are:

  • a relaxed and loving time with family
  • realistic expectations about gifts
  • an evenly paced holiday season
  • reliable family traditions

Appealing to that child within us all, important questions to ask are: how do I want to spend my time during the holidays? What are the four most important things to me to achieve-or needs-that I want to be met during this time? What family or friends do I want to connect with? What are the simple gifts I want to give or request? What are the activities I WANT to engage in? Which activities can I choose to eliminate the hustle and bustle? What didn't work last holiday season that I can modify this year? Who is someone from the here and now or from times past that I want to connect with? What are traditions that I want to begin, modify or create with old friends, new friends, family, or alone? Think of ways to accomplish these goals and plan so that these things will happen.

Dealing with the letdown feeling that can come after the holidays and the tinsel is put away: think of some activities that you enjoy and invite someone to do it with you; i.e. jigsaw puzzle for family or friends; special dessert or treat eaten only during the taking down of the Christmas tree, movies with friends, etc.

Recommended reading:
Robinson, Jo and Staeheli, Jean Coppock. Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back into the Season. William Morrow: New York, 1991.

Going Home for the Holiday

The holidays can be both exciting and stressful. Celebrations, shopping, family gatherings, exchanging gifts, etc. are among the many activities of the season. For some, the holiday is a time of rejoicing.  others face it with dread due to less than ideal situations that they may be encountering.

Regardless of one's circumstances, there are situations which are within one's control and some which are not. Exercising control over areas in one's life in which there is an element of choosing possible is of primary importance in setting the stage for a pleasant holiday season.

For college students returning home, chances are you have changed some in ways that your parents may not be aware of. You may be accustomed to later curfews whereas they may still be thinking in terms of how things used to be.

Expect that there MAY be differences to occur between you and your family. If at all possible, keep the doors of communication open. Recognize that talking, listening, stating preferences, negotiating and/or compromising may need to occur.

You may be planning on being out with your friends every spare minute; their plans may be different. At the end of the semester, grades will be coming out.

Have you shared your academic performance with your parents? If your grades are less than to be desired, best fill your parents in on the news before the last minute. It is better to let them in on how things are going with school whether the news is good or bad.


  • Let your family know about your plans and preferences for the holiday before you arrive home. Listen to their preferences and plans as well.
  • Make certain your plans include your family in some way. Think of some things you have in common with them or things you enjoy doing with them and request to do those things. Include your parents in the planning and scheduling of these activities.
  • Discuss with your parents regarding changes, i.e. curfew. Negotiation may need to occur.
  • Inform your parents in advance regarding your grades.

Whether you are eagerly awaiting the minute you return home or have reluctant feelings about going home for the holidays, make sure you set aside time for yourself doing something you enjoy and make some of your own special plans. See the page «Simple Gifts for the Soul» for ideas.

The Holidays When There Are No Close Family Ties

It has been said that «friends are our chosen family.» When there are no close family ties, you can elect to be with friends of your own choosing. Cultivate these friendships, celebrate special occasions and give of yourself with these special friends. Make it a point to send cards and call these friends on a regular basis. Celebrate holidays, turkey dinner, etc together.

Create your chosen family of friends. If there are no friends such as this in your life, vow that you will cultivate these types of friends and devise a plan on how you will do this. For the present, get involved with giving of yourself to others. See the section on Simple Gifts. Think of something you can do each day from the list during the holidays.

Be creative and think of your own.

If you need help with this plan, come to the Counseling Center to meet with a counselor who can assist you. 

When There Has Been A Divorce

Although the ads portray the holidays with the perfect, happy family, there are many who do not have the traditional family. Remember, there is no perfect situation. Many families are headed by one parent or have involved a divorce.

We may prefer to have a more traditional, two-parent situation at home; however, nontraditional families can have happy holidays as well as those with the more traditional arrangement.

How? Open your mind up to the possibility (possibilities are unlimited) that things don't have to be a certain way in order for you to be happy. All of us have our preferences but some things are our control and it is nobody's fault—some situations are not ideal.

Consider what IS within your control. Consider who IS in your life and focus on the good things you have together. Consider what you have in common and ask to spend time together doing those things.

Considering the people you will be with during the holidays, how would you to spend time with them? What are some traditions you would to have with the family or people you WILL be with? Perhaps you will be with different sets of relatives during the holidays. Establish traditions that you would enjoy with the various facets of your family. Think of the pluses for you regarding each situation and focus on them. «Don'ts» include:

  • don't expect everything to go without conflict,
  • don't expect loved ones to know how you have grown/changed (you'll have to inform them) since you last saw them,
  • don't expect parents to have changed (i.e. curfews, expectations, chores,—-you may need to negotiate, discuss preferences and compromise).
  • Think in advance of some traditions you would to start with various family members or with friends. Discuss your ideas with loved ones and schedule them in. Be creative. Possibilities: card playing, game playing, singing, playing musical instruments, reading aloud to each other, attending concerts, entertaining friends, telling anecdotes about the family, listening to the older family members tell about the «good ‘ole days», dancing, cooking together, going for walks, taking trips to the country, creating skits and plays, caroling, doing winter sports. What others can you think of? Remember, discuss ideas with other family members and make a plan. For other ideas, see page «Simple Gifts for the Soul».

Dealing With The Death Of A Loved One

Holidays are particularly difficult when you have lost a loved one. In her newsletter entitled «Renew», Judy Oaks Davidson suggests that family or friends who have lost a loved one talk about the things they will miss and devise a plan to accommodate those traditions that are now different. She offers the following guidelines:

  • openly discuss holiday traditions of the past
  • create a special tribute for the day such as lighting a candle, and/or gather some treasured remembrances
  • decide and plan where to spend the holidays
  • balance being alone with being with others
  • relive pleasant memories, and set aside «letting go» time
  • find a creative outlet — use creative feelings to write a story or poem in honor of your loved one, make gifts or special treats for others
  • attend to other loved ones in your life; listen to and celebrate them 
  • utilize available resources — don't grieve alone — utilize family, church, support group.

Renew is a bereavement newsletter with useful, supportive information for those struggling with grief issues. For more information call 859-756-3519 or


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