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7 Ways to Get Through the Holidays with a Chaotic Family

7 minute read

Imagine driving up to a beautifully lit, snow-kissed house for the holidays. You’re greeted at the door by a great big hug; watch younger family members play with their presents; and sing Christmas carols around the tree, sipping hot cocoa.

Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?

While that description paints a lovely picture, it’s not always how the holidays go. Sometimes seeing family can be the biggest cause of stress. Maybe this is because you know—or think you know—how your family perceives your recovery. Or maybe it’s because of the many unknowns during the holiday season, all of which can heighten stress and anxiety:

  • Who will be present?
  • What activities will take place?
  • How will others interact with me?
  • How will I deal with my family during the holidays?

It can be overwhelming, to say the least. But there are steps you can take to reduce holiday family stress and stay strong in your recovery.

1. Make a Worry List

Never heard of a worry list? It’s simple! Divide a piece of paper into two columns. In the left column, write a list of all the things you are worried about. In the right column, write a list of all the things you are not worried about.

As you review the left side, look at each worry you listed and ask yourself, “Do I have control over this?” If the answer is no, cross it out because there is nothing that can be done with that worry. If the answer is yes, write something important next to it: the next step you can take to help reduce the worry.

You will soon find your list of worries is not as long as you had imagined. Holiday anxiety—especially holiday family stress—is real, but some of it is out of your control and better to let go. Creating the visual of a worry list lets you break your anxiety response down into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Use the right side of the page—the things you’re not worried about—for reflection as a gratitude list. Even the smallest details can be added to this side! For instance, this year I am not going to grandma’s house in a Mrs. Claus outfit; therefore, I’m not worried about my attire for the occasion! Something like that seems small, but a little reminder of something you’re not worried about helps take some of the anxiety out of seeing family over the holidays.

2. Create a Plan for Yourself

An anxiety response is a reaction you have, either physically or emotionally or both, to a situation causing anxiety. An anxiety response can look like:

  • Sweaty palms
  • Racing heart
  • Scattered thoughts
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue or exhaustion

It is important to understand what causes your own anxiety response and what helps reduce it. For many people, there is less of an anxiety response when they can create a roadmap for themselves prior to a family gathering. This can allow you to prepare for what could occur during this uneasy time.

Questions to ask and answer might be:

  • When will I arrive?
  • How long will I visit with each person?
  • Is there space for me to retreat as needed?
  • Where is that space and how easy is it to access?
  • Who are my supports while I’m at a family gathering?
  • When do I plan to leave?

Answering these questions can help set boundaries for what you want that day to look like and what would make you comfortable. This tip is especially important during the holidays, but it works for any social function when in recovery. Have a plan, know the safe places, and set a time limit before committing. Creating a plan in recovery helps keep your goals ahead of you and maintain sobriety in the face of stress and change in your routine.

3. Have Coping Skills in Your Back Pocket

Holiday anxiety is real and valid. Especially in large family gatherings, there can be a lot going on at once. Stimulation overload! Sometimes you might even have family members that have insensitive comments related to your recovery or addiction. Have you had a family member offer you a drink? Or question your sobriety for being around people who are drinking? In those moments of frustration, try to use some coping skills to re-focus on your journey. You are here and sober; their insensitive comments do not have to change that. In these trying situations, it’s especially important to feel armed with coping skills—strategies to help you through.

When in an environment with large groups and lots of noise, a coping skill that could help is deep breathing. Remove yourself from the loud environment by going outside or finding a quiet room; even a bathroom works well. Once you’re there, take time to do some deep breathing. You can count down from six with nice big inhales and exhales. Once you feel your heart rate slow down, you might feel more prepared to re-enter the chaotic environment.

If you find yourself in a similar situation or being triggered, take a moment to yourself and go beyond deep breathing to meditation. Offer to take out the trash, say you need to get something out of your car, or go into a different room and do a quick meditation (The emergency one on the CALM app is a great option). Grounding techniques can also be helpful during this time. Even if you need to sit alone and practice gratitude, it can bring you back to a more centered place and a happier state of mind.

4. Stick with the Ones Who Build You Up

You know those sweet little grandmothers who give you lots of hugs and kisses and tell you how much they love you? How about the ones who hate all the noise in their homes; the ones who hush all the children and spend the entire day stewing over how much they have to clean when everyone leaves? Everyone comes from different families, and each offers its own challenges, especially to someone in recovery.

If you don’t feel comfortable sitting near a particular family member this holiday season, don’t sit next to them. Instead, sit next to another family member that you always feel comfortable around or someone who makes you laugh. Surrounding yourself with people who add joy during challenging times is a great way to cope with other people in your life who may not be as supportive of or sympathetic to your journey of recovery. This is your journey, and you get to build your team! Do your best to avoid people who make you feel bad. And if you are forced to be around that person, always have someone from your positive support system that you can call if you need some uplifting.

5. Limit Your Time

Many people celebrate not only Christmas Day with family but Christmas Eve as well. If two full days is too much, condense it. Agree to go to one celebration or the other. Also, you could plan to arrive right before dinner and exit when you feel the time is right. Even though the party might last eight hours, you do not have to be there the entire time. Setting a time limit will likely save you from any Christmas family drama that occurs after long periods of time together. If you know your Uncle Joe likes to find someone to debate with right after dessert, grab a piece of cheesecake to go. This way, you can try to ensure that the time you did spend with family was enjoyable. Your time should be about quality, not quantity. And, remember, you come first.

6. Plan Something You Enjoy for When You Leave

Even before you arrive for the holiday chaos, make sure you have a plan in place for something to look forward to the following day. Doing so will put you in a different and more positive headspace because, like any task, you want to do the hardest part first and the most enjoyable last. Holiday movies and Chinese take-out? Perfect! Shopping with friends, to get out of the house? Both ideas work, and both offer self-care. Having a little quiet time is also a good way of practicing self-care. Each person is responsible for their own happiness; in recovery you learn about triggers that can diminish your happiness and how you are responsible for taking daily, measurable steps for self-preservation in order to maintain that happiness.

7. Make Your Own Plans

If your family is too chaotic and you think they may jeopardize your recovery or sanity, it’s time to create your own traditions. You don’t have to spend time with your family because you have the same DNA. Your holiday is just that: yours! Take a trip to somewhere you’ve always wanted to go, plan to have a potluck Christmas with friends, go to the movies, or veg out and take some time to decompress. These are important plans that can build a fulfilling, joyful holiday for you.

There may be some initial guilt that your family tries to put on you for not spending time with them. The most important thing to remember is no one who loves and cares about you would guilt you into anything that causes you stress or suffering; that is not love. If they are relentlessly guilting you about your decision, then the choice to stay away is a good one. It’s important to hold personal boundaries for self-preservation.

No one is perfect; nor does anyone come from a perfect family. Many families are dysfunctional in many ways, and it’s your job to navigate through dysfunction in ways that allow you to feel safe, secure, and worthy of love. You are not in charge of anyone else’s happiness—only your own. And in recovery you are reminded that you are in control of the daily choices you make that impact your happiness. You have the ability to set boundaries and use these tips to move through the holidays with a little more ease. If the thought of spending Christmas with your family is making you want to be home alone, then say yes to doing what you want!


David Szarka
Medically Reviewed by David Szarka, MA, LCADC
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