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6 Tips for Managing Stress at Family Gatherings

Feeling stressed or anxious about an upcoming family gathering? 

If getting together with family gives you feelings of stress, anxiety or dread, you are NOT alone! That may come as a surprise to you, but the truth is many people experience these feelings when they have to interact with family members. In fact, a significant number of clients I work in my therapy practice with express these concerns.

Do Your Family Events Feel More Fraught than Festive?

Maybe you have an aunt who always brings up old conflicts, or a cousin who shouts his controversial opinions across the dinner table. Perhaps you have family members who don’t respect your privacy, or who express views that you find offensive. Any of these issues can make heading into a family gathering feel like marching into battle.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way. There ARE ways to lower your stress and anxiety during family gatherings. With a bit of preparation beforehand, you can avoid spending the whole evening in fight or flight mode.

Want to work 1:1 on a strategy for handling tough family dynamics? Book a consultation with me here.

Here are 6 ways to prepare yourself for a potentially stressful family gathering:

  1. Know your boundaries and plan ahead. I like to tell my clients that boundaries give structure to a relationship. They help you know where you end and another person begins. One way to set a healthy boundary around attending an event is to plan ahead of time what time you will arrive and what time you will leave. If you’re more comfortable arriving a few minutes late when other people will already be there, then plan for that. And having a set time when you’ll leave, as opposed to just being there with no end in sight, may also help ease your anxiety. Another way to keep your boundaries is to know ahead of time what you’ll share and what you won’t. If you know a particular topic is unsafe for you and will end up causing you to feel increased stress and anxiety, then that topic is off limits. Plan to politely excuse yourself from the conversation should the topic come up.

  2. Don’t be afraid to speak up for your needs. No, this doesn’t mean you walk into the room and start shouting demands. BUT, it does mean it’s okay to prioritize your own needs. You do not need to sacrifice them for the sake of making everyone else comfortable. Remember, you can’t control how other people feel or act. That said, there is a way to prioritize your needs in a way that does not come across as selfish or harsh. The key is empathy. If you can empathize with those around you—see where they are coming from, even if you don’t agree with their actions or beliefs—then you can connect meaningfully, even as you are speaking up for your needs.

  3. Get support. If you know you are heading into a potentially stressful scenario at a family gathering, having a support person is CRUCIAL. If you’re married or dating and your significant other is attending the event, then it’s very important to get on the same page before heading in. Having a conversation about your concerns, and make sure you have each other’s backs in the event that things take a turn. Another idea is to have a support person call you at a certain time to check in on you, and provide an “out” if necessary.

  4. Have a plan for sticky situations. Maybe it’s a code word, a hand gesture, a tap on the shoulder. Whatever it is, make a plan with your support person for how you will handle sticky situations, such as conversation topics that are outside your boundaries. For instance, a squeeze of your partner’s hand may signal, “I don’t like where this is going—let’s change the subject.” And remember, you can always excuse yourself to the bathroom if you need to remove yourself to go take some deep breaths and get grounded again.

  5. Create a plan for sticking to your health goals. Family gatherings almost always include food. That can present a challenge if you are adhering to a certain diet or health plan for your personal wellness. However, it IS possible to stick to your health goals at family gatherings—you just need to get a little creative. Ask the host ahead of time if there’s something you can bring, such as a side dish. That way, you can make something for the event that you know you’ll be able to eat. If you’re traveling for the gathering, you can stock up on healthy snacks at the grocery store ahead of time. And remember, what you are doing for your health is YOUR business. It doesn’t have to be open for discussion or debate with your family.

  6. Prepare an emotional health first aid kit. Bring items with you that bring you comfort and help you feel relaxed and calm. This might include a favorite scent, article of clothing, or even a snack that helps you feel more comfortable. When I work one-on-one with clients, we work together to create their emotional health first aid kit based on their individual needs.

At the end of the day, I hope you remember this: you are loved and worthy, no matter what. The opinions or condescending words of others do not define you. That may be hard to see when you’re in the thick of it. But thankfully, these events are only temporary experiences in the grand scheme of your life.

If you are feeling anxious about upcoming family gatherings, or maybe just individual interactions with certain friends of family members in your life, I would love to help you. In my therapy practice, I believe in helping my clients understand where their emotions are coming from, as well as teaching them practical tools for handling real life situations. You do NOT have to go it alone, my friend. There is a better way!


The content found on Integrative Counseling and Nutrition Consulting platform is not intended to be a substitute for professional therapeutic advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your psychiatrist, therapist or other qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding a mental health condition.


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