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The Stress of Relaxing

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell
holidiay survival


The holidays are upon us, those blissful few weeks of tradition and cheer, vacation time, family gatherings – and, according to the American Psychological Association, boatloads of stress, with family responsibilities accounting for 54% of stressors in a 2015 study and a significant source of stress for women in particular in a 2017 study. If you’re browsing the Internet looking for holiday gifts or recipes, you’re likely to bump into troves of gimmicks referring to “holiday stress” and “stress free gift giving”. It’s become such a trope of American holiday culture that the Huffington Post has an entire blog post category devoted to it.

But what is it that makes the holidays so stressful, and how can we keep ours from being overtaken by this negativity? Insights from conflict resolution and mediation offer us a way to shed light on how it is we end up so stressed as the year draws to a close, and to find some richer, more thoughtful strategies for avoiding conflict and managing hyperstress during the holiday season.

Insight on Stress: What’s at the Root?

In the mediation process we emphasize reflection on the issues at hand. If the source of the problem or conflict can be identified perspectives may change and people’s understanding of each other and the joint problem is improved. By putting some mental distance between the strong emotions we are experiencing and their underlying causes, we may avoid misplaced, displaced, and overblown conflicts. Below are some possible instigators of holiday stress.

Money. Finances are a major worry around the holiday season. This subject requires a thoughtful and measured approach. It’s wonderful to be able to give one another gifts to express appreciation and care, but without remaining reflective, it can become an insidious source of stress, even expanding into a spirit of competitiveness. Consider whether you want to let the material focus of the season overshadow time with your loved ones. How is it going to make the season more cheerful if gifts end up making you crabby and tense? Try having an open family conversation about how to deal with the dual pressures of gifting and balancing the budget.

Media Climate. In an earlier post on conflict climate I emphasized that sometimes we need to look into the world around us to better understand what is causing an interpersonal or intrapersonal) shakeup. During the holidays, our worlds can look and feel beautiful, but there’s also a chaotic commercial world around us that cranks into high gear. Advertisements and other cultural messages constantly tell us how much we have to worry about, how fast the world is moving, and how busy we need to be buying. If the bright, colorful, constant holiday messages get your nerves tense, notice it. Remember the commercial motives behind those messages.  Take a deep breath and focus on something that really does bring you joy.

Relationships. We all know that the holidays are a perfect time for a deep-seated issue to rupture into a conflict. Taking some time to reflect on this aspect of a gathering before you arrive can help it feel less difficult and painful when someone hits a nerve in conversation. Decide ahead of time how you might deal with such a situation. On the other hand, consider how those nerves so often get hit. How present are we with our loved ones when we see them over the holidays? Take the time to sit down and really listen to where they are in their lives. Letting your family be “new” to you during the holidays can provide fertile ground for a real growth in relationships rather than the mechanical small talk we are all so familiar with.

Time. Being so present with everyone sounds nice, but time feels in such short supply over the holidays! In her Huffington Post piece, Cara McDonough reminds us that sometimes “no” is the best answer.  On Forbes’ “16 Ways to Beat Holiday Stress” you will find “Respect your Limits” at number two. This can be a very acute source of stress and conflict – are you really annoyed with that person? Or is it because you just took on too much and you’re struggling to handle everything? Again, put this cause of stress at arm’s length for a moment – You can choose how you arrange your time instead of letting stress choose you.

Stop the Conflict Before it Starts

With mindful practice you can use these same strategies temporarily to put your emotions at a distance and locate what’s causing the tension. Put yourself first for a change!  Perhaps you can break those negative associations from the holidays themselves altogether!


Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience.  An expert in dispute resolution and mediation, Ms. Kandell is certified by the International Mediation Institute. She has been a leader in the Montgomery County Bar Association and the Maryland Council for Dispute Resolution. She provides mediation services, group facilitation, neutral evaluation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via emailLinkedInTwitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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