A group of people gather around a dinner table and celebrate a holiday together.
Flip the switch on how you approach holiday gatherings to focus on joy. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

It’s that time of year again. The time when, for some of us, the thought of family get-togethers and holiday parties causes stress and anxiety well before the dates and times are confirmed.

Adding pressure to your busy schedule might be jet-lagged in-laws, moody teens or a coworker that rubs you the wrong way.

And, let’s face it, the country is divided. There’s anger, finger-pointing and blaming that can spill over into your relationships under normal circumstances, relegating November and December to a time of endurance rather than enjoyment.

How are you to cope with such a cocktail of human quirks amid the heightened tensions of holiday expectations? And, no, the answer is not more cocktails.

The following tips from Spectrum Health psychotherapist Anya Nyson, LMSW, won’t give you unique gift ideas or ways to carve out more time.

Instead, her list will make you more aware of yourself and others so you can see things from a different perspective.

“Practicing the following mental tools can help you more fully enjoy what you are wired for—connection and belonging,” she said.

1. Cultivate flexibility

You made elaborate New Year’s Eve plans and paid an inflated price to get into a well-advertised party.

You imagine for weeks how amazing the night is going to be. As the night comes to a close, you’re disappointed it didn’t live up to your expectations.

Conversely, remember that party you forgot about until the day of? You dreaded going and complained silently, but went anyway only to be pleasantly surprised by how nice it was.

“Think of expectations as disappointments waiting to happen,” Nyson said. “Rather than having expectations, cultivate flexibility instead.”

Work on catching yourself dreading a holiday dinner at your in-laws. Then, say to yourself, “I have no idea how this is going to go, but whatever happens, I’ll roll with it.”

2. Be realistic and kind to yourself

You don’t want to make pies from scratch, but you tell yourself you should. You want two helpings of mashed potatoes, but think you shouldn’t go for seconds.

“Your worth as a person is not contingent on your flaky homemade crust and fluffy whipped cream nor for only having one helping of potatoes,” Nyson said. “Try this trick the next time you say should or shouldn’t to yourself: Replace the word should with ‘don’t want to.’ Replace the word shouldn’t with ‘want to.’”


‘I should make pies from scratch’ becomes ‘I don’t want to make pies from scratch.’

‘I shouldn’t have seconds’ becomes ‘I want seconds.’

“The reworded statement is your truth,” she said. “When you don’t mind doing something, you don’t have to tell yourself you should do it, you just do it. Shoulding is an attempt to guilt yourself into doing or not doing what you think you should or should not do. By being honest with yourself, you’re eliminating the guilt. This truth allows you to choose to do something or not rather than pressuring or shaming yourself.”

Also, if there are any negative comments about your store-bought dessert, you can tell them they will find you being well-rested and in a good mood more palatable than your homemade pie.

3. Don’t poke the bear

You have an overt, or covert, rivalry with your sister-in-law, and you can’t wait to brag about the promotion you received or your children’s many accomplishments.

“When you want to humble-brag, inquire instead how they’ve been since you saw them last,” Nyson said.

Reciprocity is more likely to keep a conversation going and allow you to share. Sincere tellings of achievements are better received than trying to one-up others and help build the relationship rather than drive a wedge in it.

Or, perhaps you find teasing your goth nephew, with his stringy black bangs covering his face, a fun way to get the room laughing and to pass the time before dinner. Rather than belittling your nephew in front of everyone, ask him what his favorite video game is and keep the conversation going. Get to know him as a person rather than judging him.

4. Don’t take the bait

Does Grandpa George feel compelled to share his political views because it’s his house? And, how many times has he reminded everyone he worked hard and paid his taxes, not like those youngsters?

As much as you want to point out to Grandpa George how things have changed since his day, you won’t change his mind, so don’t even go there.

Instead, prepare pat responses ahead of time that you can use repeatedly. Use a sincere tone and say something like, “You are a good man, Grandpa,” or “We appreciate all you’ve done, Grandpa,” and move on. It helps to think of your responses ahead of time, so you have them at the ready.

“Bonus: This is a great parenting tool,” Nyson said. “Rather than arguing with my teens when they didn’t like a no response, I would say, ‘I love you too much to argue,’ in a loving voice, then say nothing else. They quickly learned that this meant I was not going to argue with them, thus eliminating badgering.”

5. Accept that others don’t have to share your values

Do you think Grandpa George should keep his opinions to himself? Do you think your family shouldn’t eat turkey because you’re a vegetarian?

‘Shoulding’ on others will only result in anger and frustration for you. You get angry at others when they don’t do what you think they should, or do what you think they shouldn’t.

Try this trick next time you catch yourself saying should or shouldn’t about someone: Replace the word should with ‘doesn’t have to.’ Replace the word shouldn’t with ‘can.’


“Grandpa George should keep his opinions to himself” becomes “Grandpa George doesn’t have to keep his opinions to himself.”

“My family shouldn’t eat turkey” becomes “My family can eat turkey.”

“Practicing this helps to remind you every person is unique, and they are not wrong or less than because they have different values from yours,” Nyson said.

6. Don’t personalize

Did your mother make a passive-aggressive remark about how she thinks women with long grey hair look like witches? Do you think she said it because you stopped coloring your hair six months ago?

Or, do you believe your father-in-law talks on and on about his financial portfolio, golf handicap, boat and vacation home as a way to make you feel inadequate?

“It is one of the most liberating things you can do for yourself once you no longer personalize what others say,” Nyson said. “What others say is 100% about them because it is based on their values and beliefs. Consider their history and perspective and how that plays into what they say.”

Think of your mother’s generation and what was considered attractive in her era. In her day, women with long, grey hair were grannies in muumuus with no bra. In her day, coloring your hair when it turned grey meant you wouldn’t be that kind of old lady. Things have changed for your generation, but she still has her long-set beliefs.

Maybe your father-in-law grew up believing a person’s value came from what they had, and he’s showing his value to you. Consider his generation and beliefs. They are not about you.

7. Instead of ‘I have to’—say ‘I get to’

A coworker asks you what your plans are for the holidays. You say, “Ugh. We’re exchanging gifts at my partner’s family’s house.”

“Negative thoughts create negative emotions,” Nyson said. “In this case, perhaps dread, annoyance or resentment. A quick reframe is to replace ‘have to’ with ‘get to.'”

“I have to go to my partner’s family’s house,” becomes “I get to go to my partner’s family’s house.” A positive thought will create positive emotions. Using this trick can reduce your level of negativity.

8. Practice self-care before, during and after

Slowing your breathing will slow down your heart rate, helping to reduce your anxiety. The go-to breathing technique Nyson teaches people for anxiety goes like this:

  • Inhale for a count of 4
  • Hold your breath for a count of 4
  • Exhale for a count of 6
  • Hold for a count of 4
  • Do several rounds, then return to your normal breathing.
  • Repeat as needed.

Practice mindfulness meditation.

“Your mind’s job is to think, so you’re not going to stop it from doing its job,” Nyson said. “The goal of mindfulness meditation is to keep your mind in the present moment, noticing your thoughts, emotions, body and external stimuli without judgment. You can significantly improve your mood and outlook on life by making this a consistent practice.”

Using mindfulness apps is a great tool to help. Nyson recommends the app Headspace as a great way to start and maintain the practice.

Maintain a gratitude list. “Identify three unique things you’re grateful for each day,” Nyson said. “I recommend keeping a running list in the notes on your phone or in a journal. By doing this, you can look back and reinforce all the reasons you have to be grateful.”

Don’t overindulge. Alcohol lowers your inhibitions, but it also increases impulsivity by slowing down the activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for rational thought and decision-making.

You know you need sleep, and you know the reasons why. Value your needs over cultural expectations.

“You will feel better when you listen to the wisdom of your body,” Nyson said.

Use a mantra. Repeat a word or phrase to increase your input of positive thoughts. One method is to link it to your breath. Inhale what you want to take in and exhale what you want to send out. Here are a few examples:

  • Inhale: I am loved. Exhale: I express love.
  • Inhale: I can do this. Exhale: This, too, shall pass.
  • Inhale: Joy to me. Exhale: Joy to the world.

“‘Be the light. See the light’ is my mantra,” Nyson said. “Inhaling while thinking, ‘Be the light’ reminds us to be kind to others and to be a force for good in the world. Exhaling, ‘See the light’ prompts us to see what is right in others and the world.”

Choose to be the light at your holiday events. Choose to see the light in those to whom you connect.

“Imagine the holidays if we all worked on this,” she said.