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Managing holiday stress and relationship conflicts

While so many aspects of the holidays can feel extra-special, the pressure of the season can add stress to an already full plate. If you find yourself overwhelmed, overcommitted or unsure how to set boundaries in your relationships, Lauren Liverman, LCSW, a Piedmont oncology social worker, has some advice to help you navigate the holidays with more joy and peace.

“Time and traditions can make the holidays more stressful,” says Liverman. “We may put pressure on ourselves to make everything happen in a short period of time on top of other life responsibilities.”

Coordinating multiple large events, gifts, food, travel, family and friends can quickly become overwhelming and stressful.

“In an attempt to create joyful experiences, we may overload ourselves and negatively impact our ability to truly enjoy our time with loved ones,” she says.

Set your intentions for the holidays

To truly enjoy the holiday season, get intentional about what really matters to you.

“Slow down and enjoy the moments that are really special,” says Liverman. “There’s a reason so many people get sick this time of year—they’re burning the candle at both ends. Figure out and prioritize what’s important to you and let the rest fade into the background.”

And if you’re grieving during the holidays, give yourself extra space and care.

“It’s OK to move at a slower pace,” she says. “Honor yourself and your emotional needs.”

How to set boundaries with your time during the holidays

“The holidays are a two-month season where you might have many obligations,” says Liverman. “Decide what activities you absolutely want to say yes to and then be OK with turning down other invitations.”

When you decline an invitation, you don’t have to explain why. A simple “I’m sorry, we won’t be able to make it” or “We’d love to join you for appetizers, but we’ll need to leave by 6 p.m.” is perfectly fine.

You don’t have to do it all this season. Sometimes, doing less can make the holidays even more enjoyable.

How to navigate unpleasant conversations during the holidays

You may find yourself dealing with challenging relationships during family gatherings or neighborhood events. If so, you’re not alone. The key is planning ahead so you can manage tricky subjects with poise.

“If you’re going to a gathering and are sure your cousin is going to have too many drinks and start talking about politics, you can prepare in advance,” says Liverman. “Practice what you’ll say or how you’ll change the subject.”

Here are a few examples of how to get out of an unpleasant conversation:

  • Be polite and direct. “I know that’s important to you, but I’d prefer not to talk about that right now.”

  • Change the subject. “That’s an interesting perspective. Have you tried Aunt Mary’s chocolate cake yet?”

  • Ask them about themselves. The weather, books, TV shows, recipes, hobbies, travel plans—change the subject to focus on them.

  • Politely excuse yourself. “It’s been nice to catch up! I’m going to see if Dad needs help in the kitchen.”

Also, know that you don’t have to answer someone’s intrusive questions. If a relative asks when you’re going to get married or have kids, for example, you can say, “I’d prefer not to discuss that right now,” and change the subject.

“It’s nobody’s business unless you want it to be,” says Liverman. “You can show up with kindness and compassion, but you don’t have to share.”

If you need support managing stress or relationship issues, ask your primary care provider about a referral to a counselor or therapist who can help you develop strategies to cope.

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