For many, the holidays are the best time of year. The warm twinkle of fairy lights around town, the vacation days, and, of course, the extra family time make some people feel all of the joy.
But for others, the holidays can be traumatizing. In a time of year that prioritizes family, it can feel incredibly isolating when visiting relatives is just not an option for you—or, if it is, when it doesn’t feel like a safe or welcoming environment.
Whether you’re estranged from your family completely or have strained relations that make the holidays difficult, here are 10 tips on how to make it through this emotionally trying time of year.
1. Actually say to yourself, “It’s OK to feel angry and hurt about this.”
It’s true what they say: The only way out is through. That applies to sucky emotions when it comes to family relationships, too.
“Humans are meant to be pack animals; we’re wired to be connected,” Gene Beresin, M.D, executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells SELF.
When you lose primary relationships with people who are supposed to be your caregivers or form some of your closest bonds, it doesn’t just hurt like hell. The stress you feel about it, especially when compounded by the holidays, can spark your fight-or flight-response, which is essentially when your body releases a surge of hormones that can result in physical symptoms of anxiety like a pounding heart and shortness of breath. Trying to ignore these feelings or castigate yourself for having them can simply make these emotions stronger, Dr. Beresin says, which can result in a vicious cycle.
If you’re the one who pulled back from one or more family members, remember that your instinct to protect yourself is valid. If they’re the ones who have created the distance, acknowledge how terrible that lack of control can feel. Either way, try to accept your feelings instead of fighting them. “The more we’re aware of our state of mind and emotions, the more we’re able to find coping mechanisms,” Dr. Beresin says. That brings us to our next point.
2. Identify at least one reliable coping mechanism you can use when negative emotions bubble up.
Only you know what’s going to help when you feel overcome with sadness or anger about your family situation. Perhaps it’s writing (but not sending) a letter to your estranged loved one, getting out some aggression with a quick boxing workout, or engaging in some mindful meditation, Dr. Beresin says.
The point is to figure out what will help before you need it. That way, when triggers like holiday photos from years past unleash a rush of negative emotions, you don’t have to devote valuable brainpower to finding a healthy coping mechanism. Instead, you can channel that energy directly into doing whatever you need to feel better.
3. Figure out how you’re going to spend the days that are most important to you.
It can feel paralyzing to think about how you want to spend, say, Christmas Day or Hanukkah evenings when you know you won’t be around family. But according to Jessy Warner-Cohen, Ph.D., health psychologist at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center, it’s important that you do have some kind of outline for the big days during the holiday season.
“Any sort of change from your normal routine can be hard, so figure out what your game plan is going to be,” Warner-Cohen tells SELF. “Maybe you’re going to schedule some time at the gym, maybe you’ll do a volunteering project, but it’s important to stay active and engaged with things that make [you] feel fulfilled instead of just sitting by yourself.”
4. Delete any social media apps you think will cause stress during the holidays.
It can be helpful to go off the tech grid a bit and temporarily delete apps that foster negative emotions, Dr. Beresin says. “Be aware of what your triggers are,” he says. Will reading negative news on Twitter make you feel like the entire world is awful? Will seeing a ton of people posting family-filled Instagrams prompt a crying jag? If your relatives are getting together without you, where are those photos most likely to show up? Think about all of this in advance so technology doesn’t only add to your emotional burden.
5. Make a physical list of all of your positive attributes.
Warner-Cohen suggests making a list to remind yourself of everything great about you, especially if you fall into a habit of blaming yourself for your family estrangement or difficult relationships. This can be particularly helpful if cutting off family isn’t an option or may not be quite necessary, but you’re still dreading family time. (Many of the following tips can help in this situation, too.)
When spending time with your family feels like entering a lion’s den, it’s important to remember why you’re worthy of love and respect. “Just having that list there regardless of what anyone says is helpful,” Warner-Cohen says. Don’t only keep the list in your head, since you might blank on it when you get upset. Write it down or put it on your phone so you can call it up as needed.
6. Come up with a scripted response to steer the conversation away from touchy areas.
Whether it’s off-color political topics, jabs about you being LGBTQ+, snide remarks about you having a partner of a different race, or just incessant criticism about your life choices, you probably know exactly what your family might say to upset you. The only good thing about this is that, if you are going to see them, it can help you prepare.
Figure out the conversations that you absolutely will not engage in and a few responses that will help you set your boundaries kindly but firmly. For instance, if a family member body shames you just as you knew they would, you can say something like, “I appreciate your concern, but my weight is my business.” Then change the subject.
If you know you’ll have at least one ally in these situations, tell them beforehand which conversations you’re avoiding so they can help you guide the discussion elsewhere when it comes time, Warner-Cohen suggests.
7. Have an excuse ready when you need to escape, and consider bringing younger family members with you.
“[When you need alone time], offer to go to the grocery store or even just go take out the trash,” Warner-Cohen says. “I personally will get up and offer to help with dessert when I don’t feel like engaging in a particular conversation.”
Depending on the specifics, it may help to bring younger family members away with you, Dr. Beresin says.
“You don’t want them to see family as being a war zone,” he explains. “When it comes to the people you care about, you have to make those decisions of, ‘Am I going to make conflict, or will I show them a new way of doing things?’ So, you can take your younger family members and say, ‘Let’s go watch a movie, let’s go play Scrabble.’” It gets you away from drama and may even help end familial cycles of conflict.
8. Don’t isolate yourself due to stigma about family estrangement.
When you’re already feeling alone, it can feel easier to draw back from people instead of pushing yourself to be vulnerable. However, it’s important that you don’t isolate yourself even more. “You need to engage with others, with people who do provide you with a sense of security and connectedness,” Dr. Beresin says. “Expressing yourself and getting feedback during this time is really important.”
Even if you feel like the only person in the world who’s spending time away from their family during the holidays—or spending time with family but loathing every minute of it—you are absolutely not alone. Sharing a bit about your family situation with people you trust might even help you realize they’re dealing with similar issues.
9. Check in with a therapist before or after the holidays.
Maybe you already have a therapist who’s clued into exactly how you feel about the impending holiday season, in which case, great. Be sure to go over your emotions and game plan with them before, and fill them in on how it went after.
If you don’t have a therapist but are really struggling with how you’re going to handle this holiday season, it might be a sign that seeing a mental health professional can be a good idea. Dr. Beresin says his patient caseload for therapy always ticks up this time of year.
It may be hard to get in to see someone, especially right now, in which case it might help to read up on classic mental health tips therapists recommend to their patients. Then, when you are able to see a therapist, you can debrief on how the holidays went and, hopefully, have ample time to prepare before the next round.
10. Remind yourself that the holidays won’t last forever.
“We emphasize holiday culture, but just remember that it’s only a few [weeks] out of the year,” Warner-Cohen says. “Remembering that can help put things into perspective.”
Granted, dealing with family estrangement or tough family relationships is hard at any time. But the added holiday stress of feeling like you should be on extra happy and extra close to those in your family? That, at least, is temporary.