How to Protect Your Mental Health During Stressful Holiday Gatherings with Family

The holiday season is usually such an exciting time for college students — we get a break from school, there’s a plethora of yummy food to eat, and everyone goes home to celebrate with close friends and family. However, as much fun as it is to spend time with family during the holidays, oftentimes it can be very stressful as well, especially for those of us already coping with poor mental health, and especially surrounded by the uncertainty of the current pandemic. 

We all have those family members who ask us nosy personal questions, or ones that make ignorant and triggering comments about politics, eating, appearance, and all those sensitive subjects that tend to pop up at the holiday dinner table. Some of us may have to share personal space with multiple family members staying nearby, or even at your house, without opportunity for alone time to escape and recover. Others may be forced into an hours long Zoom party, featuring even the most distant of cousins. So if being around your family tends to feel like a lot during this holiday break, here are a few ways to protect your own mental wellbeing throughout the season. 

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1. Strategically plan how you'd prefer to spend time with people

Make a mental plan of which family members you genuinely like to spend time with, the ones that you don’t really get along with, and the ones who you want to know better. Basically, figure out how much time you think you can handle spending with each person! If you don’t get along with someone, you'll need a reason to leave that family gathering early, so you’re not stuck next to them all night.

Maybe you get along better with some people in your family when it’s just the two of you, and not in a larger group setting. If that’s the case, plan some fun activities that the two of you can do together during the holidays, to supplement the time you might avoid them during a larger party or get-together. 

2. Write down your feelings in a journal, and put them into action later

If you get into a conversation with a family member and they happen to say something that feels upsetting to you, try not to immediately react or lash out. Just keep the conversation going with another subject, or if you need to, politely end the conversation and walk away. Later when you have some alone time, write down your feelings in a notebook, journal, or even on your phone.

Keeping negative feelings inside is emotionally and mentally detrimental to you, so use writing as an outlet to let all of that energy out. Hold on to these notes, and keep them to talk through later with your therapist or counselor when you get back to campus, so your concerns don't go unaddressed. Your healthcare professional will be able to come up with tips to help you navigate these conversations if they happen again in the future! 

3. Set boundaries

You really don’t have to endure stressful conversation after stressful conversation during the holidays. Remember that although this may be the only time of year you get to see some family members, you still need alone time to recharge. Don’t feel like you constantly have to be around people during the holidays. Really try to listen to yourself, and realize when you need to take a step back before mingling with your family again.

4. Be empathetic, even when it feels hard

This goes back to not immediately reacting when someone upsets you with an offhand comment. Take a moment to breathe, and then think about why this person exhibited a certain behavior or viewpoint. A lot of the time, your family members may be going through stressful situations just like you, or they feel socially awkward. This is no excuse for them to be rude or confrontational, but seeing from their perspective may feel helpful when processing and working through your own feelings.

I truly hope some of these tips help you out this season. Although the holidays are full of fun events, remember that your mental and emotional health is very important! Don’t forget to step back from the festivities when you need a well-deserved break.