Coping With Re-Entry to Family Gatherings

By Bill Hudenko
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
December 9, 2021

For many people, holidays are associated with an increase in contact with either their family of origin or extended family. Though families can often be a source of support and comfort, there are also many relationships that can be challenging (e.g., in-law relationships or family members with very different belief systems).

During the holidays, these encounters can result in anxiety and stress which may link with a worsening of mental health symptoms. For others who do not maintain close family relationships, the holiday season can be a painful reminder of isolation or loss which can be linked with both stress and depression.

Tip 1: Reframe “Should” Statements

Part of what causes us distress during the holidays is how we think about the meaning of this time of year. Many times the thoughts that generate the most trouble are what therapists call “should” statements. Should statements are simple beliefs we hold about what ’should’ happen in a given context. For example, you might say to yourself “The holiday season should be a time when we all get along but my family doesn’t” or “I shouldn’t be alone on Thanksgiving.” If you find yourself distressed by these types of ’should’ statements, take a moment to consider the legitimacy behind the belief. Why should your family get along? Do all families get along? Why should you be with your family? Who requires us to be with family during a holiday? Once challenged, we often recognize that there is more flexibility in life than we once imagined and that we have the freedom to develop our own beliefs. Equipped with this way of thinking, you can start to better enjoy the holiday season by reframing your goals. For example, instead of believing that your family should get along, you can say “I should find ways to enjoy my time with my brother” or “I should take time for myself during the holidays to remember what’s important to me.” This type of reframing is helpful for reminding us that in the end, the holidays symbolize values like love, togetherness, and acceptance -which can be applied in a diverse set of ways.

Tip 2: Mindfulness Matters

Often times we dread negative holiday experiences for weeks before they occur. Much like getting a shot, however, we realize afterward that the imagined, anticipated experience was much worse than the small prick and associated pain. It can be helpful to cultivate a practice of mindfulness during this period. In other words, find ways to stay present at the moment and to be grateful and appreciative for what you have in the period leading up to anticipated negative encounters. This can help to reduce your anxiety and make any imagined discomforts less problematic when you have to face them.

Tip 3: Little Bits of Personal Joy

Decades of research in positive psychology have shown us that small bits of personal joy produce more overall happiness and wellbeing than large rewards. For example, many small positive interactions, or bits of pleasure during a week will typically yield more overall happiness than the big vacation you’ve been looking forward to. The good news is that you can intentionally build these small bits of pleasure into your routine to enhance your mental health. This might mean spending a little extra time to brew your favorite coffee, taking a few minutes to text your best friend, or taking a quick walk with your dog.

Tip 4: Indulge, Thoughtfully

Holidays are frequently associated with good foods and overindulgence. While we may enjoy these indulgences at the time, they can also be connected with guilt and upset when we over-consume. Consider identifying a limited set of indulgences that you allow yourself this holiday -and remember that there are many types of indulgences that might bring you as much or more pleasure than just treats. For example, pick some favorite desserts to eat, but also think about other pleasures like quality time with your favorite relative, re-connecting with old friends from home, or a walk around your favorite park. In short, don’t feel guilty indulging, but do so thoughtfully for better results!

Tip 5: Plan to Connect

We know that strong social supports and positive relationships are protective for good mental health. Plan to connect with those you care about over the holidays -whether it is friends or family. This can be as simple as a video call with old friends or an in-person meet-up if possible. You’ll be doing your mind a favor by connecting meaningfully with others.

Tip 6: ’Tis the Season’

Though it may seem paradoxical, many people report that they are happiest when they do things for others -without any expectation of return. Find ways to spread joy to others this holiday season. Consider donating your time -this can be helping a family member with a chore, spending time at a shelter, or giving your time to play with a child. ’Tis the season after all -and we know that these acts not only spread joy to others, but they will make you healthier and happier as well. 

Tip 7: Seek Support if Needed

Despite a variety of tips and tricks that you might employ to take care of yourself, the holiday season can still be overwhelming. Remember that it’s not a sign of weakness if you need extra support. There are many ways to access mental health support remotely if you don’t have services nearby. K Health offers K Therapy, a text-based therapy program that includes unlimited messaging with a licensed therapist, plus free resources designed by mental health experts to use on your own.

How K Health Can Help

Anxiety and depression are among the most under-reported and under-treated diseases in America. Nearly 20% of adults in the US experience mental health illness and fewer than half receive treatment. Our mission is to increase access to treatment for those experiencing mental health illness in silence.

You can start controlling your anxiety and depression and get access to the treatment you need with K Health. Starting at $49/month get prescriptions for mental health medications plus unlimited doctor visits through the K Health app. Start your free assessment here.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Bill Hudenko

Bill Hudenko, Ph.D. has significant experience in the fields of both mental health and technology. Dr. Hudenko is a licensed psychologist, a researcher, and a professor who holds a joint appointment as a faculty member at Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine.