by Aimee Beardslee, LMHC, EdS, MS

Do you look forward to the holiday season as a time of “comfort and joy”, when you join with your partner, family, and friends to harmoniously celebrate all of the ways in which you are grateful and love one another?

Or is your holiday season a little more stressful and chaotic – perhaps even overwhelming?

You aren’t alone if you feel overwhelmed! And if you are part of the LGBTQ+ community, you may face unique stressors that make the holidays extra challenging. For instance:

  • You may not be “out” to those you will spend time with during the holiday season.
  • You may be out, but not fully accepted by everyone, especially those closest to you.
  • Your partner may not be out to their family.
  • You may be misgendered or subjected to invasive questioning about your sexuality and/or gender identity.
  • You may experience bisexual erasure and feel invisible even if you have come out.
  • You may be outright rejected by family.
  • You may spend the holidays alone.

Even for those of us who consider ourselves lucky and have allies we also call family and friends, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the fantasy that the holidays are supposed to be somehow more special than the rest of the year.

When we compare this “holiday fantasy” to our “holiday reality”, it is no wonder we become stressed, anxious, and ultimately disappointed.

So let’s take a moment to walk through 6 steps that will help you manage the inevitable stress that may arise this holiday season!

  1. Envision your “holiday fantasy”. It’s okay to dream big! What would your ideal holiday gathering or tradition look like? Who is there? How are you celebrating? Sometimes it’s easy to identify what one doesn’t want, but what is it that you do want?
  2. Now think about what you can realistically make happen. What do you have control over? What do you not have control over?
  3. Now decide what you will do (or try to do) for the holidays. Resist thinking in “all or nothing” or “black and white” terms. If needed, compromise to find some ways to celebrate that feel good to you, even if those things, in reality, won’t happen until you are back home with your “chosen family”.
  4. Think about how you are going to deal with challenging, uncontrollable situations. Although it is impossible to prepare for or predict everything that will happen, think about what has happened before that has been challenging, and consider how (or if) you wish to handle things differently this time around. It is easy to play the “what if” game endlessly and go down an “anxiety spiral”. Instead, whenever you feel anxious or stressed about something that might happen, ask yourself what is realistically and likely to happen given similar past experiences. Then come up with some possible ways you can respond and cope in those scenarios. Also, allow yourself to de-catastrophize whatever does actually happen. Even if you wind up facing the “worst possible scenario,” consider how you have survived such things before. You are more resilient than you probably give yourself credit for!
  5. Don’t forget that when something (or often, someone) provokes your stress response, your body prepares to fight, take flight, or freeze. When you feel threatened (like when someone says something hurtful), your body  experiences physiological changes: increased heart rate, quicker and shallower breathing, flushed face, tensed muscles, clenched jaw, becoming hot and sweaty, etc. Cue the yelling, tears, and storming out! When this happens, the primitive part of your brain is attempting to steer your bodies’ actions to keep you safe from harm. But if you aren’t faced with a truly life threatening circumstance, the more evolved and “rational” part of your brain needs to be reminded that it will be okay and you will survive.
  6. Finally, create a “coping card” to remind yourself what to do when your stress response is triggered. This can be a handwritten note card (see example below) you can fit in your wallet or a typed note saved to your smartphone.
Coping Card
Coping card example

Here are 8 suggestions for things to include on your coping card:

1. Take slow, deep breaths: Become aware of your breathing rate, and aim to slow your breathing down by taking slower, deeper breaths. Breathe in through your nose for a count of at least 3-5 seconds, and breathe out for several seconds. Ensure your stomach is rising and falling and not just your chest. Repeat until you feel yourself naturally breathing more slowly.

2. Ground yourself using your five senses: When we become “emotionally flooded” (you can remember this term by using the analogy of “drowning” in an emotion- such as sadness, anger, anxiety, etc.) we feel out of control of and overwhelmed by our emotions. “Grounding” helps us shift from an intense emotional state to a mentally focused and present state in which we feel calmer and safer. (Tip: grounding is very useful for those who experience symptoms related to anxiety, panic, or PTSD.)

 “5 Senses” Grounding Activity with Examples:

  • Touch: Go to the bathroom or kitchen and run cold or warm water over your hands. Focus on the  temperature and sensation of the water as it flows over your hands and through your fingers. Carry a small stone or shell with you and feel its texture and shape with your fingertips.
  • Taste: If you are at a holiday dinner, pay attention to the way the taste travels throughout your mouth as you chew and shift the food with your tongue. Carry mints or small candies with you to do the same.
  • Smell: Notice the scent of holiday candles that may be burning or the smell of coffee that is brewing. Carry a small vial of essential oil or perfume and slowly breathe in the scent.
  • See: Look around the room and see if you can notice something you didn’t notice earlier when you walked in. Perhaps there is a tiny hole in the wall from a nail that was removed or a piece of red lint on the beige sofa. Look at the clothes or shoes you are wearing and notice the pattern, the color variations, and the way the fabric is woven.
  • Hear: Listen to the sounds around you: a car driving by outside, the dog snoring steadily, or the wind blowing through the trees and rustling leaves. Carry ear buds so you can listen to soothing music.

3. Call/text a friend: Arrange to have an “on call” person you can text or call when you know you will be in a potentially stressful environment. Even if someone isn’t available to respond immediately, you can still take a few minutes to type a text (or even type a note to yourself on your phone) to allow for a time-limited, mini-venting session. (Tip: placing a time limit on writing or talking about something upsetting helps keep us from emotionally flooding.)

4. Have a mantra: Remember that “everything is temporary”. Use this or another soothing phrase you like as a mantra to get you through tough moments. Try “I’ll get through this” or “I am in control of how I choose to react”.

5. Take a break: If you feel that things are getting a little heated with someone, or a recurring conflict pops up, remember you can walk away. Politely excuse yourself so you can “go get some fresh air” and let them know you’ll be back shortly. Take a brief walk outside, or drive around the block. (Be safe and focus on your surroundings, which will also help ground you.) Or if walking and driving aren’t doable, you can go into another room and do some gentle stretches and deep breathing. Decide whether you can both talk calmly once you return, or if it would be best to change the subject and address the conflict later.

6. Set boundaries: If someone asks a question that is personal or inappropriate, you can reply, “I’d rather not answer that, thanks” or, “That’s personal.” Questions directed at LGBTQ+ people can sometimes be invasive and wouldn’t be asked of a non-LGBTQ+ person. You have every right to set your own boundaries and decide what you will and will not discuss.

7. Be mindful: Practicing mindfulness is about having a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment and acknowledging and accepting the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise at any given moment. The holidays may make us feel happy in some ways, but they can also bring up some unpleasant feelings we’d rather push away. You may feel sad because someone close to you died making it difficult to enjoy the holidays without them. You may feel angry that you are not able to spend the holiday with your partner because they are not out to their family yet, or they are out to them but not accepted. You may feel resentful that other people have a family who accepts them, but yours doesn’t accept you. Allow room for all of your emotions – not just the happy ones. Mindfulness and emotional agility actually contribute to higher levels of well-being overall!

8. Be grateful: Even if there are things you wish could be different or better, what can you find in your life to be grateful for? If you are struggling to find a reason to be grateful, what can you do to create grateful feelings in others?

Can you send a holiday card to someone who has been influential in your life, or perhaps someone you know who spends the holidays alone? How about donating some old things you have no need for anymore to someone who can’t afford those things? What about volunteering once a month for a cause that you are passionate about?

Even if you are struggling to feel grateful, it can be life changing and uplifting when someone suddenly feels grateful for you. And then you probably will feel grateful that you were able to make a difference!