How To Make It Through The Holidays When Family Gatherings Are Overwhelming

The holiday season is a cherished time of year, especially for those who rate spending time with family a 10 out of 10 on the fun scale. The comfort and joy some get when attending holiday get-togethers are often the highlights of their holiday. But for others, such family events conjure quite the opposite reaction, and can be anxiety-inducing, stressful, and just plain overwhelming. If you fit into the latter category, chances are a family gathering isn't the activity that will provide you with holly and jolly feelings this season.

Perhaps there is drama within your family's history that makes you uncomfortable, or certain members have a habit of pushing the boundaries you set for yourself. Maybe you're tired of answering nosey questions, or there's a massive political divide. Regardless, no matter how much you love your family, sometimes the thought of everybody getting together — with all their different opinions — triggers something within you. And you aren't alone!

According to Banyan Mental Health, feeling overwhelmed at family gatherings is very common. Social anxiety may play a prominent role in your discomfort, triggering common panic attack symptoms like a fast heart rate, sweating, breathing problems, diarrhea, nausea, and even loss of consciousness. Simply thinking about it may be enough to throw some people into a frenzy, but rest assured, we've got your back with a few tips so you can make it through the holidays with your mental health intact.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Have a game plan

Often, the thought of the "unknown" is what causes that overwhelming feeling when thinking about attending a family gathering. What if someone asks a question you don't want to answer, or things get heated between two family members who have a tumultuous relationship? Going in with a game plan is a great first step, so you can ease your mind by knowing if things go south, you'll know what to do. How long do you plan on staying? What will you say to someone who pushes a boundary?

The Mighty recommends getting deep and answering some personal questions for yourself prior to the event so you can come prepared. For example, think about the specific triggers you have that make you anxious at such events, how you are most likely to respond to them, and if there are things you can do to avoid or reduce them. Consider also practicing healthy coping mechanisms beforehand that you can implement while at the gathering. If deep breathing or soothing self-talk exercises work best for you, feel free to take mini trips to the bathroom so you can ground yourself. Remember, self-care during the holidays is a must. 

Find an ally or bring a friend

The only thing worse than feeling overwhelmed at a social gathering is feeling overwhelmed and alone. Nobody wants to feel like they're walking into the lion's den to fend for themselves! Having someone around to chat with, watch your back, and check in with you can be a major lifesaver, especially if certain family members don't understand your anxious feelings. According to the mental health treatment facility LifeSkills South Florida, those panicky symptoms can worsen if you're around family members who don't understand your mental health concerns.

Bring a friend if you don't have a family member who understands and can support you. That way, you know you have someone you can rely on if those overwhelming feelings creep up, making the gathering a lot easier to endure. If bringing a friend is out of the question, lean on the lifeline that is your cell phone. Give your support system a call or shoot a quick text so you can receive virtual support if needed.

Maintain neutral conversations

The chances of every family member being on the same page regarding certain opinions are very low. Everybody has their own perspectives and beliefs, and some are louder than others when voicing them. One way to ease your overwhelming feelings during the holidays is by keeping those conversations neutral and avoiding controversial topics that may trigger passionate feelings, like religion, politics, money, etc. Instead, keep the conversations light-hearted, and change the subject if you must.

Kansas City marriage and family therapist Katrina Stoddard told Flatland that if conversations ever steer in a direction you don't want them to, change the topic to one that is more neutral. Examples include asking to see pictures from someone's latest vacation, or asking how someone's wedding planning is going. Guiding the topic of conversation elsewhere can prevent issues from arising while sending a respectful message that you still want to continue chatting with them.

Keep your boundaries

Attending family gatherings and leaving unscathed may require you to hold your tongue at some points, as heated interactions and differences of opinion may only overwhelm you more. However, this doesn't mean you have to take disrespect. If someone crosses a line, Discovery Mood & Anxiety Program urges you to simply "excuse yourself" if needed. Sometimes, you may even need to reject the invitation to the gathering altogether to protect your peace. And that's okay. Some people, whether subconsciously or knowingly, push boundaries to see how far they can go. Don't allow this.

Setting and keeping personal boundaries does not require intense interaction. In fact, you can be kind about it. Simply saying, "I appreciate hearing your opinion, but I'd rather not talk about that," or "I don't see us agreeing on this, but I respect our differences. Let's talk about something else," are great ways of clearly stating you don't agree and are uncomfortable with furthering the dialogue. Remember, setting boundaries is healthy and empowering!

Go in with a positive attitude

Even if you dread it, try your best to think optimistically about your family holiday gathering. If you go into the event with a negative viewpoint that you're going to be miserable, chances are, you will be miserable. This isn't to say you should shut off your emotions because, let's be honest, the last piece of advice you want to get when feeling overwhelmed is to "just relax." However, you can still acknowledge your feelings while shifting your outlook to appreciate your family so that you aren't miserable.

According to Stenzel Clinical Services, thinking about all the lovely qualities your family has may be helpful before attending the gathering. Even though you may not like certain family members, you still love your family and want to bond with them. Going in with an encouraging attitude may increase your tolerance level and patience, helping you to enjoy yourself more. Plus, sulking in your negativity will just make the entire experience worse. Your reality will reflect your thoughts, so try to make them positive ones.

Stay true to yourself and accept your family for who they are

We know it may be tempting to head into the family holiday party trying to impress others or change their minds about a particularly hot topic, but the most important thing you can do is be yourself — and let them be who they are, too.

Director at the Center for Treatment and Study of Anxiety in Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine Lily Brown, Ph.D., told Penn Medicine News, "Radical acceptance is the willingness to embrace the people that you love, including all of their problems. Your peace of mind is going to be calmer knowing that you have chosen to accept your family for who they are, flaws and all."

The truth is, no family is perfect, and we all come with our own set of faults, experiences, perspectives, and walks of life. While you may feel overwhelmed at your family's holiday gathering, letting bygones be bygones and enjoying the moment for what it is — and who your family is — will help you get through it.