Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Mindful Hacks for Holiday Happiness

Help for managing holiday stress.

If the tinny sounds of Christmas music trigger PTSD of holidays past, you are not alone. Many people dread spending time with family. So, if you are starting to feel anxious and not sleeping well, let me share my favorite tips for becoming more resilient and managing holiday stress.

Do you worry that you’ll get triggered by old family memories or obnoxious, intrusive behavior from family members? Most of us get upset being around family (and sometimes revert to being 5-years-old again), but learning how to become resilient is key. I have some hacks that really help.

Imagine that you are an anthropologist from Mars. You are here to study the strange behavior of these earthlings (your family). Take field notes. Jot down all the weird things that drive you crazy, i.e., the things they say, the things they do, the opinions they have, etc.

Observe whatever it is that irritates you. Ask a friend to be an anthropologist, as well. When the holiday is over, get together and compare notes (possibly over drinks or a shopping expedition). Remember, this holiday will pass.

If things get rough, try a self-compassion break. This can be done even during a difficult or heated conversation. It involves three simple steps:

1. Notice that this is hard. You might want to stop and say to yourself, “This is a difficult moment.”

2. You are not alone in having a family that pushes your buttons. You might say, “There are thousands (if not millions) of people who are having a frustrating time right now. I am not alone in this.”

3. Extend some kindness or compassion to yourself., saying, “Let me be kind to myself.” This may be new behavior for you, but research shows that beating yourself up or calling yourself names only makes things worse. Focus on getting through the day.

Prioritize self-care. You need it and deserve it. Set aside time for a walk or run, or check out a local yoga or cross-fit studio. Bring family members along, if you can stand it.

Try a meditation app. My favorite is Ten Percent Happier. “No time,” you protest. Use the “one minute counts” practice, because it really helps.

If a needy family member demands your time, tell them you don't skip your self-care. Let yourself become a role model of finding some balance and sanity in a crazy family/world.

How can you hold a boundary with your family? You don’t have to engage in conversations around money, politics, or relationships. (The last thing you need is Aunt Charlotte asking if you have “anyone special” in your life, or Uncle Harry asking when you will have kids).

Remember the great line from Mad Men: “If you don’t like a conversation, change it.” Learn some verbal judo moves if someone tries to corner you, insisting that their opinion (political, religious, whatever) is correct. Smile and respond, “You may be right.” I learned this one from a meditation teacher. People usually back off with this response, while you are thinking, “And you may be wrong...”

How can you stay healthy? Holidays can be especially hard if you suffer from anxiety or depression. Start by taking care of yourself before the holidays begin.

If you tend to get SAD (Seasonal Affective Depression), also known as the winter blues, you may want to invest in an inexpensive lightbox or try a natural remedy, such as St. John’s Wort. Eat well and get daily exercise. Give yourself permission to rest and take care of yourself.

What if your family insists that you join them on a hike (even in the rain) for the annual outing that you hate? It is fine to say no, firmly. If they continue to push, you can say, politely, “What don’t you understand about no? Is it the ‘N” or the “O?” That usually ends the conversation.

Keep focused on the present. If you find that you begin ruminating about previous holidays, things that people did, or things that people said to you that upset you, try to stay in the present moment. My favorite mantras are, “That was then, this is now.”

If you are still having trouble getting out of the past, try: “If it’s not happening now, it’s not happening.” Your goal is not to please everyone, but to help yourself stay healthy and balanced.

Keep your visit short. And remember, it is a holiday. It will not last forever (thank God).

Good luck.