Reduce Stress at Holiday Family Gatherings

Thanksgiving comic by Sara Zimmerman at

My father-in-law has a saying that has become legend: Family is tough.

As much as you love the clan you were born into or perhaps married into is, all those long-lasting ties can make things complicated. You love them, but they drive you crazy. Which makes you react in a way that you wish you hadn’t, and then you feel guilty. It can be a real merry-go-round of unpleasant feelings. And when faced with those unpleasant feelings at a gathering where there is plenty of food and probably alcohol, it may be tempting to try to stuff them down with another piece of pie or glass of Scotch or wine or whatever your family beverage is which might help you forget your upset for a few minutes but then you feel disgustingly stuffed or hungover and ultimately just feel worse. Not very Zen, right?

While you can’t expect to shift long-standing family dynamics in the space of one meal, you can improve your experience of them and ward off some of the angst-y feelings.

I’m not saying you’ve got to find to stop getting annoyed, like some kind of Zen master. I’m merely suggesting that you can use these family gatherings as a way to practice being present to your experience and choosing what you want to focus on. Because – you’ve heard me say this a million times – what we focus on grows. So let’s focus on feeling good, shall we?

I’ve got two really simple ways that help you do just that, and best of all you can do them even in the midst of the most chaotic gathering and no one will be the wiser.

(If you’re more of a video watcher than a reader, I did a brief Facebook Live about this very topic that you can watch here.)

Strategy # 1: Choose Your Trigger

Remember the drinking game from college where you’d watch a show with a group of people and every time a certain character entered the scene or someone said a certain phrase, you’d have to take a drink? This is a little like that, except in this case you’re watching your actual life and you’re taking a breath instead of a drink.

Here’s how you do it:

Think of something about the family gathering that you’re dreading. I know there’s something. Maybe it’s the way your brother-in-law always brings up politics once you’ve just sat down to eat and there’s no hope for escape in sight. Or your grandmother starts asking about your love life. Or your sister’s dog sniffs your crotch. Or your Uncle Marvin starts picking his teeth.

Got something in mind? Good.

Make a vow right now that every time this particular thing happens, you will use it as a reminder to take a nice full breath and notice what’s going on in your body. It’s so simple as to sound almost silly, right? But man does it help get you out of that tight, stressed-out, miserable feeling that comes on when something triggers you.

When your granny starts in with her questioning, first, notice that your stomach is clenched and you’ve started holding your breath. Then just feel where your feet are. Notice the chair under your butt. Sink into the experience of wherever you are in space, and take one good breath that you pay attention to all the way through. Inhale. Exhale.

Those three seconds it takes to breathe that breath are long enough to cool the stress response in your body and give you a chance to respond instead of react. It creates an opening to help you see things a little more objectively and to stay curious instead of judgmental. Just try it. You’ll see.

Strategy #2: Savor the Good Stuff

Now think of something, no matter how small, that you’re looking forward to about the gathering. Maybe it’s a particular food, or seeing your favorite cousin, or gabbing in the kitchen while doing the dishes. Whatever it is, think of it before you go.

Doing so will help you actually notice when this particular thing that you enjoy happens later. And once you notice, “Hey, we’re all here in the kitchen chit-chatting, I love this part,” you’ll pay more attention to this particular thing that only happens during family get-togethers. It helps you focus on what you enjoy instead of getting derailed by the things that bug you (which aren’t going to bug you quite as much because you’re going to remember to use them as a chance to do something nice for yourself and a take a breath and enjoy the sensation of being in your body).

Me, I’m looking forward to seeing my kids play with their cousins, eating the apple pie my husband’s making, and doing what my in-laws do best—sit in the living room while talking, laughing, and eating.

What are you looking forward to? Leave a comment on the Facebook Live video, or below. =)

And for more insight on how gratitude is good for your brain, how to practice it without adding anything else to your to-do list, and how to super-charge it, check out this post I wrote called “Your Brain on Gratitude” for Whole Foods Magazine.

Speaking of gratitude, I’m thankful for each and every one of you who is reading this and whatever holiday you’re celebrating next, I hope it’s restorative and offers a chance to connect to yourself and to the people you love.


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