friends and family at holiday meal

How to Handle the Stress of Holiday Gatherings

While the holiday season is a time of family bonding and happy traditions, the festivities may feel overwhelming for some people and a source of stress.

Many wonder how they will navigate challenging discussions, manage delicate relationships, and address anxious feelings during these visits. Furthermore, when we are in the presence of other people, we often feel their energy — both the positive and the negative energy — which then impacts our mood.

This holiday season, pay attention to how you feel and take steps for self-care. Here are some things you can do to support yourself during these stressful holiday gatherings.

5 Ways To Alleviate Holiday Social Anxiety


1. Breathe

The breath is one of the most accessible coping tools we have, but when we experience stress, our breathing becomes disrupted. Some people hold their breath while others inhale intensely. Take time to breathe deeply and intentionally for the rest of the body to follow suit. When breathing is regulated, we can think more clearly.

Take a deep breath when you notice your stress levels rise, and observe the impact it has on your body and mind.

  • Have a hard time with something that was just said? Breathe.
  • Feel yourself getting warm? Breathe.
  • Not sure how to reply productively? Breathe.

Mindfully breathing reduces stress levels, leading us to find our words and feel more confident when we communicate.

Breathing Practice: Square Breathing is a technique that helps regulate the inhaling and exhaling process and calm the nervous system.


  • Inhale for 4 seconds,
  • Hold your breath for 4 seconds,
  • Exhale for 4 seconds,
  • Hold your breath for 4 seconds.

It is a simple exercise that you can do anywhere.

WHILE A SOCIAL gathering may be a challenging situation, the experience is temporary, and when it is over, you can prioritize self-care.


2. Set Boundaries

Boundaries are an important part of healthy relationships; however, it is common to struggle to name our limits with others.

Setting boundaries is easier said than done, but remember that making your needs and expectations is a way to protect you, others and your relationship. Feel free to express that you are unwilling to discuss topics that make you uncomfortable. Give yourself permission to say “No.” By gently setting boundaries, you make your comfort level understood.

If someone crosses our boundaries, reminding them of our boundaries is an appropriate response, as we are honoring our needs and asking others to respect them as well.


3. Consider a Window of Time​

In the spirit of setting limitations, consider whether you will be available to attend the entire gathering or whether you can stop by for a portion of time. Remember, you are not obligated to do anything you do not want to do, and if you find it is best to visit in small doses, permit yourself to do that as a self-care practice.

If a window of time does not feel like an option, take small breaks from the larger group to relax. After all, you are the master of your own time.


4. Determine How You Want to Communicate

As we navigate challenging conversations, remember that we have the power to communicate in productive ways. When we recognize the other’s point of view before speaking our point, we engage in a dialogue. When people feel heard, they are more likely to follow suit by also listening and responding.

Take time to formulate a response that incorporates new points. Don’t want to discuss challenging topics? Don’t know what to talk about? Discuss common ground and choose simple topics like movies, weather, pets, sports — keep it as simple as you can.


5. Seek Regulation and Connection with Allies

When we feel overwhelmed by the stress of the gathering, seek a connection with allies to alleviate these feelings. Consider who you can turn to for reassurance and respect, and look for them when you need a sounding board.

Turn to those family members who respect your boundaries and value your needs. Do you have a trusted cousin? An understanding aunt or uncle? Connect with them and enjoy their support. Recognize the positive impact of surrounding yourself with allies.

Calming Your Thoughts


Remember, while a social gathering may be a challenging situation, the experience is temporary, and when it is over, you can prioritize self-care to replenish and relax. Return to your breath and your boundaries; honor your needs and give yourself permission to meet them. Support yourself before, during and after the holiday season. 

If you notice yourself anticipating stressful situations, the following questions may calm your thoughts and help you feel prepared: 

  • How can I take care of myself before the gathering?
  • What are my boundaries?
  • Who are my allies? 
  • How can I be my own ally?
  • What are the communication patterns?
  • How can I communicate assertively?
  • What can I do to recharge myself after the gathering?

As we head into the holiday season, you may feel increased stress. You are not alone. A mental health professional can help you further. 

If you notice a loved one is experiencing anxiety, express understanding and allow them the space to manage the pressure.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to Ammirati Counseling to ask and inquire about support services that you can receive to help with overcoming feelings of depression, loneliness, stress or anxiety.

Ammirati Counseling is a boutique counseling group with an office in Bannockburnn serving Chicago. Therapists also offer private therapy via remote online. They provide comprehensive care to children, teens, adults, couples, families, and the LGBTQ community.