4 Ways to Enjoy (Not Just Endure) Holiday Family Gatherings

Mindfulness techniques that can help you stay open-hearted to the people you love

The holidays mean lots of time spent with family, which can mean lots of opportunities for holiday stress. Whether your brother-in-law insists on talking about politics, your mother probes into your love life, or your Great Aunt Jean picks her teeth at the table, each family gathering is rife with opportunities to lose your cool.

"The irony about spending time with the people you know and love the best is that they also know how to push your buttons the most," says Kate Hanley, author of The Anywhere, Anytime Chill Guide. You can either clench your jaw and muddle through until it's time to go home again, or you can try a few mindfulness techniques that can help you stay open-hearted to the people you love, Hanley says. "The only way you can change another person's behavior is to change the way you react to them—and taking even a few seconds to take a deep breath can help you react more thoughtfully to whatever's stressing you out."

Here are four simple remedies—drawn from meditation, yoga, and acupressure—Hanley suggests trying at every family gathering you'll be attending this holiday season. "Although no one thing can magically transform your family relationships, these tips can help you be more relaxed, less stressed, and less likely to get snippy with the people you love."

1. Stand by your mantra.

Before you head to the family gathering, decide which family quirks you're dreading the most. Then resolve to repeat a calming mantra whenever your stress trigger happens. "Your mantra can be any word or short phrase that's meaningful to you," Hanley says. "It could be something formal, like 'Om' or 'Amen,' or something simple such 'peace' or 'bless his heart.'" Whatever mantra you choose, taking a few moments to repeat it before you react to whatever is pushing your buttons gives you a chance to collect your thoughts—making you less likely to over-react.

2. Accentuate the positive.

Before you leave for the family gathering (or before you begin getting ready, if you're hosting), take a few moments to name the parts of the day you're looking forward to—such as eating Mom's apple pie, seeing your favorite cousin, or playing with your niece. Then if anything happens to spike your stress levels, make it a point to focus on the things you like. "Changing your focus from something upsetting to something enjoyable can snap you out of a downward spiral in mood," Hanley says.

3. Practice the art of letting go.

We all wish we could "get more Zen" around our families, but we can all use a little help because the emotions associated with family are deep-seated and highly charged. There is an acupressure point known as Letting Go that facilitates the release of troublesome emotions, deepens breathing, and promotes relaxation. "Spending a few minutes applying gentle pressure to your Letting Go points can provide a noticeable shift in your mood," Hanley says. "You can do it in your car before you go inside or even in the bathroom if you need help during the festivities." To find the Letting Go points, feel the tips of your collarbones on either side of the notch of your throat. Walk your fingers out to where the collarbones end—the Letting Go points are located three finger widths below that end point. With your arms crossed in front of your torso, press two or three fingertips in to the points on either side of your chest and breathe naturally as you do. "You don't need to go for the burn—think steady but gentle pressure," Hanley advises. After a minute or two, remove your fingertips slowly and take a couple of breaths before you head back in to the festivities.

4. Remember your heart.

Whenever you need help staying calm, take a moment to lay one hand over your heart. "This simple gesture shifts your focus away from your swirling thoughts and on to your body—where your deepest wisdom resides—and your heart in particular, which helps you react with love instead of frustration," Hanley says. "If anyone in your family catches you doing it and looks at you funny, just tell them you have heartburn." 


Kate Hanley is a professional writer who specializes in exploring the mind-body connection.

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