It begins when the leaves start abandoning the trees and the chill of autumn is in the air. Opening act is Halloween with costumes and candy soon replaced by turkeys and TV adds showing happy families around the Thanksgiving table. The Holidays are approaching and, for many, expectations and stress levels begin to rise.

Holiday time can be a bittersweet mixture of excitement, fun and disappointment. Memories from the past, expectations that fall short of reality, over spending and over indulgence can result in feelings of sadness or depression, exhaustion and overwhelm. The complexity of families today, can leave some people feeling disappointed and lonely. It can be an especially stressful time when families live in different parts of the country and can’t or don’t want to be together for the holidays.

Depending on your family situation, various scenarios can get stirred up when thinking about the upcoming holidays; Who do we visit if our adult children live in different parts of the country? What if our children aren’t talking with each other? What if they’re estranged from us? Will I get to see my grandchildren if their parents are divorced? Do we visit with your kids or mine? It seems that the list of complex issues is endless. Was it easier when extended family was more the center of life, there were fewer divorces, and everyone lived nearby? Not necessarily so. Both of my grandmothers came to our house for Thanksgiving. Their relationship was cordial, at best, and it created a sense of tension which was hard to ignore.

For many individuals and couples, family relationships are the most stressful part of the holidays. Unresolved conflicts can undermine a sense of connection and further alienate rather than bring people together. So how can we approach the holidays and make decisions that won’t leave us feeling guilty, sad or angry?

Arnie and Suzanne have been married for twelve years. They each have two adult children who live in different parts of the country. Early in their marriage, the “holiday conversation” started in September with both insisting that they wanted to spend the holidays with their own adult children and grandchildren but not without the other. It made for a stressful time with one or both of them feeling disappointed and angry. They finally decided to talk with a coach who helped them see possibilities for a “win-win” by thinking about the holidays season more broadly and considering alternative ways to celebrate with their adult children. Compromising and being on the same page helped Arnie and Suzanne create alternate rituals for the holidays. They found ways to spend time with all of their children over the holiday season and plan special time for just the two of them.

Whether you’re single or part of a couple, communication, flexibility and compromise are key to planning a more peaceful holiday season. But before you talk with anyone else, think about what’s most important to you. Clarity along with a willingness to be flexible can open up the space for possibilities that get shut down when our thinking and/or behavior is rigid. Ask yourself; How do I want to be feeling in January when I reflect back on what the past few months have been like? What has worked and what hasn’t worked in the past? How can this year be different? When decisions are being made with spouses, adult children, relatives or friends, everyone’s feelings and priorities are important. This is where communication, flexibility and compromise come in. There may be no perfect solution, but feeling heard and respected goes a long way in coming up with creative ways to share and be together with those you love.

The rules of communication are simple but may not be so easy when there is anxiety, tension and potentially hurt feelings. The following are suggestions for productive communication whether you’re talking with your partner, adult children, other relatives or friends.

  • Make a time to talk when you won’t be interrupted
  • Agree on the goals for the conversation
  • Show caring and honesty
  • Use “I” statements and be clear about what’s important to you and why
  • Be a good listener; don’t interrupt
  • Don’t make assumptions, ask for clarification
  • Be willing to consider things from the other person’s perspective
  • Be open to compromise: Nobody gets everything they want all the time!
  • Be realistic

No matter how well you work things out, holiday stress is practically inevitable unless you decide to avoid the whole thing and go lie on a remote beach. Women in particular are subject to increased stress because of external expectations as well as expectations that are self inflicted. Women are usually the ones worrying about buying the gifts, preparing the food and making sure everything is perfect. And, of course, there’s also the stress of money, travel and too much indulging.

Reducing stress is important in maintaining a healthy mind, body and spirit. Stress has been shown to cause the release of hormones that reduce the functionality of the brain. Stress can also contribute to anxiety and depression. Following are some tips that can help you take care of yourself in the midst of expectations and pressure with the holidays approaching?

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