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Renowned Therapist Lori Gottlieb on How to Ease Anxiety During the Holidays


We all feel it to some degree; stress and anxiety during the holidays, particularly when it comes to family gatherings. But renowned author and psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb says there are ways to tame the tension and even reframe the situations that get you most upset.

1. What are some of the reasons people feel anxious during holiday gatherings?

People feel a lot of pressure to have the perfect version of the holidays–the happy family, the smiling faces, the warmth and glow of the season.  They think it should be a relaxing, peaceful time, but the holidays are often anything but. Most people are overwhelmed with gift-buying. They’re feeling obligated to go to several gatherings–office parties, holiday dinners from different sides of the family–some of which they don’t really want to be at. They aren’t getting enough rest. They’re spending a lot of money, adding to their bills and debt. Travel is stressful. And they worry about encountering complicated relationships that exist in many families.

2. Is there are a way to reframe your thinking about the gathering?

It’s important to set realistic goals for the gathering. It’s not about matching some fantasy of the holidays but about focusing on the smaller things that you find meaningful and enjoyable.  Maybe a parent or sibling is difficult to deal with, but if you go in without expecting them to act differently and accept that they are who they are, you can invest your emotional real estate in the niece who makes you laugh, the cousin you don’t get to see very often, or the great-aunt who always asks about you with great interest. Instead of dreading what might not go smoothly, focus on what you know will feel good.

3. What about changing the situation, experience or venue. Would that ease the stress?

We often forget that we have choices about how we spend the holidays. If going to a certain family member’s home means spending the entire day or evening there, you can suggest hosting at your home and specifying the hours in advance, or moving the gathering to a more neutral venue, like a restaurant (which also provides the nice distraction of other families nearby, and the bonus that volatile family members are less likely to act out in public). Doing an organized activity, like going bowling or ice skating, can be a fun way to get together with family without the intensity of constant conversation (or too much alcohol). You can also create your own rituals around the holidays–like going out of town to a favorite vacation spot, doing a movie marathon, or having a small gathering of close friends who all enjoy each other.

4. If the anxiety or depression is overwhelming, is it a good idea to schedule an appointment with a professional both before and after the event?

Many people believe that they should be happy during the holidays so they’re afraid to admit that they’re anxious or depressed. Keeping our feelings to yourself makes you feel isolated, which adds to the anxiety or depression. Talking to a therapist can help put things in perspective, provide concrete coping strategies, and offer a supportive ear for whatever a person might be experiencing. The more centered you are before the gathering, the easier it will be to navigate.

5. Can you offer 5 tips for easing the anxiety?

  1. Take care of your health: eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, don’t use substances to numb your feelings.
  2. Say no, guilt-free: protect your time so you don’t become overwhelmed.
  3. Stay connected: if you’re feeling sad or anxious, reach out to friends or a therapist. Remember, you aren’t alone.
  4. Reach for the gratitude: focus on one or two things that you’re grateful for this year or that you look forward to creating in your life in the new year.
  5. Have perspective: it may be that everywhere you go, all you see are reminders that it’s the holiday season, but really the world hasn’t stopped, the holidays are short-lived, and before you know it, life will be back to normal (now that’s something to celebrate!).
  6. Remember that you’re a grownup now: it’s easy to slip back into childhood roles when we’re around our families, so if you notice this happening, step away to the restroom, take some deep breaths, look at your adult face in the mirror, and smile–because as an adult, you’re finally free to do as you please.

Gottlieb’s latest book, “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed,” can be ordered by clicking here.

Click here to watch her new TedTalk “How changing your story can change your life.”

This Q&A was featured in the November 24th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.



Susan Pascal is editor of The Sunday Paper. She lives in Los Angeles with her two kids.