December 19, 2012

How to avoid family stress over the holidays

Keith Meador
Keith Meador (Vanderbilt University)

Getting together with extended family during the holidays can be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be, says Keith G. Meador, professor of psychiatry and preventive medicine and director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt. There are ways of managing expectations to make the time together better for everyone.

“Holidays bring out yearning and hope, but also excessive expectations that everything is going to be perfect, or feelings of regret that things aren’t like they used to be or that things have never been the way you want them,” Meador said. “It should be a season of anticipatory hope rather than expectations of illusionary perfection.

“There’s an illusion during the holidays that everybody else is happy, everybody else is having this glorious time, and many people wonder why their lives aren’t like that,” he said. “This time of the year particularly challenges what I think can be very constructive—negotiating the inevitable disappointments of life. Figuring out how to cope with disappointment isn’t all bad. There’s some hope within that.”

Stopping daily activities to spend time with family members can bring out feelings and issues that often go unspoken during the day-to-day activities of life, Meador said.

“So unless we’ve thought about these issues or have a place to talk about them with others, we may find ourselves particularly vulnerable to depression. Normal daily activities stop and everything is supposed to be wonderful and there’s supposed to be a certain glow, but instead we find ourselves facing realities that we were avoiding throughout the year.”

Meador said the holidays are a good time to discuss issues with family members in a non-pressured context, if it’s possible to pull back from the excessive expectations. “Try being honest with one another with gratitude for the gifts of love and friendship we bring to the table and not faulting each other for our inevitable imperfections.”

Meador offered the following tips to make holiday togetherness less stressful:

  • Don’t overplan or overcommit. Too much change in routine, even good change, can produce stress. Too many changes—traveling more, eating more, staying up later, shopping more—can stress us.
  • Be flexible. It’s a necessity, especially when there are family events planned by in-laws and other relatives. You can’t control time spent with others. Understand that holidays will change your routine and require more decision making. Accept that it’s all part of the holiday.
  • Be grateful for what you have, instead of grasping for what you don’t have.
  • Be accepting. Forgive your family for not being perfect.
  • Don’t overspend. Know when to quit. The new year is going to be here soon, and so will the credit card bill.
  • As you face the new year, realize there are going to be disappointments. You had them this year. You’ll have them over the coming year.