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How to Keep Stress from Ruining Your Family Holiday Gathering

By Noelle Nelson November 02, 2019 Family

Whether you are celebrating Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Kwanza, or Christmas, the holidays will soon be upon us, spreading a message of peace and love around the world. It’s a truly uplifting and inspiring time of year, no doubt, until your relatives arrive to celebrate with you.

Of course, some of us have easy, smooth, and delightful interactions with our friends and family. But most of us have some degree of, shall we call it “challenge,” when it comes to dealing with friends and family, especially those we generally see only during the holidays.

Let’s face it, after a certain age, one hopes that family stress would be mostly behind us, that we’d come to accept each other as we are, for who we are. If only it were so. Unfortunately, family members can still grate on our nerves, try as we might to take it all in stride.

Your perpetually whining grandson refuses to talk to anyone but spends the holiday get-together with his face in his mobile.

Your cousin Ann wants “just another little drinkie” before lunch, which guarantees she’ll be incoherent by dessert. Your brother-in-law George’s jokes are not only politically incorrect, but also downright rude.

All of these put you in an impossible position. Ignore or smooth over? Attempt people-management or plaster a smile on your face? Run and hide? Well, you can’t do that. The upshot is stress.

The Stress Challenge

Holiday stress, whether handled directly or sublimated in the interests of apparent family harmony, takes its toll. Not just in terms of momentary frustration and aggravation, but in terms of your health and longevity.

Conflict produces stress. Stress can accelerate telomere shortening, which research shows can jumpstart age-related disease. Why are telomeres so important to good health? Every cell in our body contains chromosomes, each with protective caps known as telomeres.

Telomeres shorten naturally as we age, but telomeres also shorten due to stress, with a highly unpleasant consequence known as “accelerated aging.” I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want is “accelerated aging.”

We can’t avoid all stress. A certain amount of stress is actually healthy as it gets us up and going. But the stress of family challenges is rarely healthy stress, as it can lead to anxiety, frustration, or even depression.

How to Lower Stress Levels

Exiling all stress-inducing friends and family from holiday get-togethers isn’t the answer. Instead, learn how to deal more effectively with stress and the stress of family challenges.

Imagine if Artie Giles, who dreamed of attending Seminary and receiving a Master’s Degree, had given up on her dream when life got in the way? She had to support herself and her family, working as a hair stylist, then as a bus driver, and then helping special needs children.

She was finally going to pursue her education dreams after retirement only to find herself taking care of her ailing spouse and elderly parents until they passed away. On top of that, personal stress kicked in: in her late 70s, Artie suffered an unusual nerve condition that left her paralyzed and bedridden for a year and in a wheelchair for another.

But with the help of a devoted brother, Artie refused to allow herself to succumb to what would have been life-shortening stress and despair. On the contrary, at 81 she began her Master’s program and fulfilled her dream with a degree at age 85.

Artie is living proof that by refusing to let family challenges and personal stress get you down, you can continue with the life you want for yourself.

Certainly, you may cringe when challenges occur, but as long as you shift your focus to dealing constructively and quickly with them, chances are good the effects of the stress will not impact your health or longevity.

Here is a useful strategy to deal with holiday family stress challenges:

Look for the Good

So, your grandson has nose-dived into his cell phone. At least that keeps him occupied and out of everybody’s hair.

Cousin Ann will sneak a drink regardless of your valiant attempts to keep her away from the refreshments. Either make sure she has someone to drive her home after the festivities or make up a bed for her.

Everyone is used to brother-in-law George’s offensive humor. Ignore it. Don’t rise to the bait by responding, and trust that your other guests will take their cue from you.

Enjoy What Can Be Enjoyed

Your job is to enjoy what can be enjoyed in your family gathering, not to be the family problem-solver. You won’t reform anyone overnight, so don’t try.

This is not to say that at some other point you might wish to engage in communication with various family members over unhealthy or inappropriate behaviors, but not now.

The holidays are meant to be a time of peace and celebration. To the best of your ability, let it be so. And with that, know you are supporting your own health and longevity. A precious holiday gift to yourself.

What strategies do you use to reduce the stress at family gatherings particularly during the holidays? Do you find that you are more tolerant or less tolerant of bad behavior at family get-togethers as you get older? Why? What is your worst family gathering cringe-worthy story that ended on a positive note? Please share with our community!

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The Author

Dr. Noelle Nelson is a psychologist, consultant and speaker. She is passionate about personal growth and happiness. She’s authored over a dozen books including The Longevity Secret: How to Live Happy, Healthy & Vibrant Into Your 70s, 80s, 90s and Beyond and Phoenix Rising: Surviving Catastrophic Loss: Fires, Floods, Hurricanes and Tornadoes. Visit her at

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