Holiday Anxiety

Understanding Your Triggers and Establishing Boundaries with Family

The Holiday season is upon us! In addition to the excitement, expectations, parties, and celebratory activities, comes the stress and anxiety. So, amongst all the information out there, what can we do to minimize the stress and maximize the fun? Believe it or not, the starting point is to define what stresses you specifically during holiday time. Exploring and answering this question can change everything about how you proceed through holiday time as stress free as possible for you. 

Everyone is different and what stresses one person; another person can find it easy to breeze right through. Personalized holiday plans put the focus on areas you need help with and eliminate areas that are not a concern for you. Once you have your definition, then you can move to identifying your triggers and putting a plan in place to proactively deal with situations in the most stress-free way possible. 

Keeping this structure in mind, the following triggers and boundaries are summarized for you to choose from as they apply to your circumstances.


Triggers are responses to past events and memories that cause us to have an adverse emotional reaction to present events and demands. Triggers can fall into some general categories but there are also lots of triggers that are personal to the individual. It’s important to identify what triggers you have by reflecting on past events and memories where you have been triggered in the past. The following list includes some general categories you can explore to see what might apply.



If you have memories of unhappy holidays with family fights, someone drinking too much and becoming rude and critical, a tragic death at holiday time, accidents, or divorce, then the holidays might be a trigger for you. Some people’s memories are sad, bittersweet, or even traumatic and these will be triggered when holiday time rolls around again. Take stock of any events that were unpleasant in the past and plan to prevent them from becoming an adverse emotional reaction in the present.



Many times, we see relatives we may avoid the rest of the year. We may feel at the mercy of our relatives or steamrolled into doing things out of sheer family tradition. However, we can take control of the holidays. We do have choices and a say in what we can and cannot do. For instance, some feel they must make grandma’s cookie recipes exactly as she has, even though they taste marginal. Some feel obligated to attend your aunt’s holiday party even though she drinks too much and insults everyone there. Ask yourself the question again: is this kind of behavior serving you and/or your family during holiday time? Attending an event where mutual respect is not present is not a good choice no matter what time of year it is. Eliminate expectations that are rigid and perfectionistic and set boundaries for attending events.    


    • CHANGES   

Any change that has occurred over the past year is going to get highlighted and amplified emotionally during holiday time. If there has been a divorce, loss of job, move to another state, the death of a loved one – all of these will suddenly come rushing back to the forefront. It is important to put the changes into context. They are not any better or any worse because of the holidays. And, reality check, everyone on the planet has something to report as not the ideal moment at holiday time.    



Typically, people during holiday time sleep less, eat more, drink more alcohol, and get less sunlight and fresh air. Holiday season is also cold and flu season. Our immune systems get taxed this time of year, which can add to stress levels. It is so important to pay attention and make sure you are keeping some of your self-care activities in place! Monitoring physical needs and taking care of these needs makes it possible to move through the demands of the holidays with far less stress.  Lowered defense mechanisms can also come in the form of feeling more vulnerable and emotional this time of year. Planning and setting emotional boundaries become critical to reducing emotional vulnerability and being more anchored in logical decision making.   


Now that you have figured out your triggers, you can turn your attention to boundaries and communicate them to family. Our culture here in America gives us continuous marketing messages about holiday time being the time to spend with family. Not only are we to spend the holidays with family but it is expected the holidays will be happy/fun time with them. However, this is an unrealistic expectation and sets many people up for disappointment and the continuation of behavior patterns that need to be eliminated.

 Each of us must ask the question “what makes the most sense for me at holiday time?” Once we know what fits our circumstances, then we can proactively plan and communicate our boundaries in advance.

An example for proactively setting a boundary is letting all the in-laws know your Christmas must be split between three locations and as a result you will be spending around 2-3 hours with each celebration. If you let them know ahead of time, their expectations are adjusted, and they will not have a reaction on Christmas Day because they have prepared mentally for the shorter visit. 

Another scenario might be a father who constantly harps on your weight or the clothes you wear. In this case, you can request your mother’s help in asking him to refrain from these comments. You can also choose to have a quiet conversation with him yourself and request he refrain from making negative hurtful comments. And you can let them know if they choose to be disrespectful and make comments despite your request, you will leave the party to protect yourself. Leaving can be quiet and does not have to be a scene. It can be done using quiet language but firm language!

Here are some guidelines for making a holiday more enjoyable and less stressful.


    • No discussion of religion or politics – these 2 topics are very personal and can become contentious quickly in a group of people who have a wide range of beliefs.

    • No questions about marriage, dating, having children.

    • No jokes at another person’s expense, or criticism disguised as a joke.

    • No comments about physical appearance

    • No use of derogatory or negative words                         

The last consideration for setting our boundaries is also figuring out what to do when you have set a boundary, and another person violates it anyway. There are many creative responses we can explore but suffice it to say, a consequence is needed. Choose to leave the conversation if it is making you uncomfortable. Express your discomfort with intrusive questions. Choosing to leave the environment that is causing stress and violating your boundaries is the last resort, but it may be just what is needed. And it can be done quietly by just reminding others of your boundary, pointing out they have crossed it and you are choosing to leave as a result. Gather your things, put on your coat, and quietly head for the door. This does not have to become a scene.

Keep in mind, mentally healthy people respect boundaries. If your boundaries are being routinely violated, it indicates healing is needed for yourself and how you interact with others. It also indicates your family members have some healing to do.


So many things to think about during holiday time, right? Just a little bit of planning and forethought can make all the difference. Once you have established your triggers and boundaries, you can build on those each year to make the holidays more enjoyable. May you have peace, friendship, and love around you this holiday season!

Bethany Keith
Written By:
Bethany Keith