Published on December 9th, 2013 | by Meredith Crislip

5 Ways to Overcome Relationship Stress During the Holidays

The roast is in the oven, the potatoes are on the stove, the rolls are rising. Gifts are artfully wrapped, the house is sparkling, and the table is set with holiday décor.

And now the kids are tracking wet snow and mud all over the freshly vacuumed carpet. The family is arriving early (as they always do) and complaining about the food, house, and one another (as they always do). To top it all off, my husband (and helper) seems to be missing in action.


The holiday season is filled with challenging family dynamics, burnt rolls, broken bowls, and general imperfection. It is time we reclaim the joy that is often lost in planning, stress, and family conflict.

I talked with two family therapists to learn their best tips for coping with relationship stress during the holidays.

More stress than celebration

Family gatherings during the holidays can sometimes cause more stress than celebration. Dr. Carol Smith, Licensed Professional Counselor and Associate Professor at Marshall University, explains, “Women have this idea that they have to do everything—they have to continue to work full-time, and be a full-time mom, and be a full-time spouse, and put on a great Christmas for everyone to their own detriment.”

Our lives are already hectic, overwhelmed, and lacking rest. When you mix the demands of the holiday season with a helping of stress and a concoction of controversial family members, you will find yourself in a desperate state.

Dr. Christine Schimmel, Licensed Professional Counselor and Assistant Professor at West Virginia University, claims too many people attempt to create a perfect, “Norman Rockwell” family gathering. This “idealistic perfection” is not often a reality. If it is not attainable, then the failure to achieve this plan of perfection will only lead to a joyless event.

If you experience stress due to family gatherings during the holidays, you aren’t alone. The majority of people will experience family conflict and the resulting stress at some point or another. So, rest assured—if your family is imperfect, your family is normal.

The serious results of stress on our bodies

According to Dr. Smith, the resulting stress can affect emotional and physiological aspects ranging from general attitude to the shortening of telomeres in our DNA, which leads to early cell death. This stress can also wear out our brains, our bodies, and our relationships.

Dr. Smith likens the stress response to a pain response. Pain is felt as a warning sign that something is not right. Similarly, stress is often felt because something in life is out of sync. To properly deal with holiday stress, it is important to identify where the stress is coming from—an obnoxious uncle, a mother with dementia, or strife between siblings. When the source of stress is understood, it is easier to implement techniques aimed at stress-reduction and conflict resolution.

How to overcome relationship stress

There is hope. It is possible to get through (and even enjoy) the time you will spend with your family during the holidays. Dr. Smith describes stress as a motivator—it can either motivate us to be cranky and view our world through a negative lens or it can motivate us to make the situation better. So, how can you channel your motivation to benefit your relationships? Here are some suggestions.

1. Make sure your expectations are in line with reality. (Dr. Schimmel) Realize that your expectations could be unrealistic. For example, every year during the holidays, your Great Aunt Jean complains at length about the weather. It would not be in line with reality to expect Aunt Jean to avoid griping endlessly about the weather this year. If your unrealistic expectations go unmet, it increases your stress response.

2. Check your self-talk. (Dr. Schimmel) What are you saying to yourself about your family members, gatherings, and plans? If your self-talk is full scenarios of “what should happen,” and “who should act a certain way,” then you may have unrealistic expectations. As you’re preparing for the big event, ask yourself, “What are my expectations?” Then, examine those expectations based on what is real and most likely to happen.

3. Go into the holiday gatherings with a sense of humor! (Dr. Smith) A sense of humor, a smile, and laughter can reduce your stress levels (and the stress levels of party attendees). Avoid taking yourself too seriously. The ability to laugh at yourself will work to ease tension and improve your overall outlook. Look to incorporate humor throughout your holiday season, and be ready to reap the reward of joy and laughter.

4. Have a sense of awareness. (Dr. Smith) How are you affecting those around you? Rather than focusing on how others affect you, take a moment to be mindful (or aware) of how you affect others. Ask yourself, “How can I create a more positive atmosphere?”

5. Express gratitude. (Dr. Smith) Notice those things you’re grateful for and say them out loud. This type of expression does three things:

  • It gives gratitude a reality.
  • It improves your attitude and perspective.
  • If you see what you do have, you tend to pay less attention to what you don’t have.

And a bonus tip: Love God and love people. (Jesus, quoted in Matthew 22:37-40) “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.” If you can focus on the religious aspects of your holiday celebrations and on the people you’re celebrating with, you are well on your way to a meaningful, joyful, and memorable holiday season.

Photo by Mark Barner via Stock.Xchng

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