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How do I survive Christmas with my difficult family? Add to ...

The question

I'm dreading seeing certain members of my family over the holidays. I wish I enjoyed spending time with them more but I end up feeling tense and uncomfortable. How can I make the best of it?

The answer

You are not alone: The holidays are one of the most stressful times of the year for many people.

Most of us are trying to do too much in too little time at this time of year. December and January are months where we incur the highest amounts of debt. The dark and dreary days negatively impact mood for many people and can compound existing stressors. Add to the mix the fact this is one of the only times of year that we are thrown together with our relatives - whether we like them are not - and you have a perfect recipe for stress!

There are a number of things you can do to make the holidays go more smoothly:

  • Have realistic expectations. Remind yourself that most people are experiencing the same tensions. We are bombarded with images in the media of what the "perfect family" looks like: In actuality, there is no such thing. The reality is that most families deal with significant issues at this time, regardless how what it looks like from the outside.
  • Don't try to solve all of the long-standing family feuds. If you have had 15 years of conflict with your sister, and nothing has been done to address the core issues to date, chances are that the problems will still be there. Trying to delve into the "big issues" over the holidays usually turns out badly. Go in with your eyes wide open, not expecting or hoping that things will somehow have magically changed.
  • Have some alone time. End-of-year work deadlines, social events with friends and family obligations can all lead to a hectic schedule. Don't feel you have to say yes to every invite that comes your way.
  • Ensure good self-care. Our stress levels are more manageable when we feel good physically. Avoid temptations to overeat. Keep up with your usual exercise routine. Try to stick to a regular sleep schedule. And remember that although alcohol in small amounts can seem to help with tension and discomfort, it is a depressant and can actually worsen our stress levels.
  • Create new traditions. If you have extremely difficult relatives, the company of great friends may be exactly what you need. Invite a friend you love to your family dinner. Host a joint family dinner with a neighbour (people tend to be on better behaviour with others). Spend a day volunteering at a shelter. Consider going away for the holidays. Think about what's best for you and don't try to make everyone happy.

Finally, try to find what humour you can in your family situation. Remind yourself that the season will soon be over, and you will get through it like you do every year.

Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at psychologist@globeandmail.com. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

Read more Q&As from Dr. Samra.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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