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Unwrap the gift of less stress this holiday season

25 December 2020

Before holiday stress leaves a big hole in your family relationships, anticipate that stress and plan how you will react.

That is the advice of two University of Missouri Extension human development specialists. Too often, holiday stress is a gift that keeps on giving, says Jeremiah Terrell. Stress comes in small packages that, like holiday bills, add up quickly and can last for a long time if you do not have a plan, writes Linda Geist.

Conflicts exist even in the most congenial of families. It is not the conflict itself but how you react that is important, says Terrell.

There are times when family members wound each other emotionally, intentionally or unintentionally, says Christina Edholm. Tensions can mount and painful memories may resurface. Recognize these triggers and respond by stepping back for a moment.

Edholm calls it “giving grace.” Practice using your inner strength to give yourself control of your emotions and reduce stress. “Fill each other with gratitude, happiness and joy instead,” she says. “Be grateful for relationships and the bond that makes us family.”

Have realistic expectations for your gatherings. “You may need to reset expectations,” says Terrell. Learn to accept family members as they are and set aside grievances for the day.

When things get tough, turn the conversation to a pleasant shared memory. If that fails, take a walk or engage in something you enjoy to distract yourself.

  • Anticipate and acknowledge. Plan for and recognize conflict. Plan how you will react if someone brings up controversial topics such as politics, money or religion. Graciously acknowledge good but misguided attentions, such as when Aunt Betty encourages that second piece of pie when you are trying to lose weight. She just wants you to enjoy her holiday baking and perhaps hopes for a much-desired compliment.
  • Be realistic. This year does not have to be and probably won’t be like last year. Find new ways to celebrate. Use technology to share pictures, gift opening or baking.
  • Communicate routines. If you are a guest in someone’s home for the holiday, ask about times for meals, waking and going to bed. If you have children with you, communicate to them the need to be respectful of others’ routines. Use this as an opportunity to discuss how families do things differently and that this is O.K. In 2020, families who gather also must address health practices. Discuss these before guests arrive.
  • Communicate traditions and create new memories. Discuss expectations for gift exchanges. Set monetary limits in advance so no one feels embarrassed or slighted. Know when and how you will open gifts – before the holiday meal or after. Will one person open all gifts before moving to the next or will everyone unwrap at the same time? Will you be expected to attend religious services and, if so, where and when? “Traditions are the center of holiday celebrations,” says Edholm. “They center us. They balance us.” However, change is inevitable. Try to incorporate memories of holiday traditions of loved ones who have passed with new activities.
  • Show gratitude. Remember the little things you are grateful for to reduce stress. Terrell says gratitude affirms the good in our lives and can be an antidote for stress. Terrell talks about gratitude in a short video at youtu.be/7rfPh5WiG8w(opens in new window).

Terrell and Edholm also suggest basics such as getting plenty of rest and sticking to healthy diet choices as much as possible.

For more tips, see the MU Extension publication “Stress Management and the Challenge of Balance” (GH6651), available for free download at extension.missouri.edu/GH6651.

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