How to survive, maybe even thrive, during the holidays

During a time of the year that can be fraught with anxiety, emotional intelligence is a well-timed gift.

Media Contact: Barbara Clements - 253-740-5043,

The winter holidays emerge with a swirl of emotions, not all of them joyful. While gift exchanges, work parties, family gatherings and worship services offer a chance to smile and celebrate, they also can be overwhelming.

Before you step into that stress this year, Dr. Larry Wissow has a few suggestions. The University of Washington School of Medicine psychiatrist and division chief of child psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital advises taking a deep breath and making a plan rather than falling into old, unhelpful patterns in your family’s dynamics. 

“You want to relax, but … as the adult that you've become, not the kid that you used to be,” Wissow said. “The worry is that you're actually not sagging into yourself, you're sagging into some old self.”

No matter how you feel about your relatives, friends or co-workers, it is useful to assess your own behavior and expectations before you dive in.

“We're bringing a lot of baggage into this ourselves,” Wissow said. “I think it's also a time when we're really vulnerable. We're not in our own space or our own space is being invaded. Sometimes we're really pooped. We've often been just sprinting to the holidays, either at work or for holiday prep, and we've just got no reserve.” 

Holidays have always held the potential to cause anxiety, as different generations with different political and cultural views coalesce, often on unfamiliar ground around someone else’s dinner table. 

Wissow suggests we keep three things foremost in our thinking: mindfulness, compassion and gratitude. Prepare yourself, employ empathy and give thanks for what you have.

“You can be grateful that you actually have a family to be with,” Wissow said. “Many people don't — or they're so estranged or they're so far away or their family is trapped in a terrible conflict zone someplace in the world. At least you are here and there's some hope.”

Conversational hotspots are predictable and can be avoided, Wissow said. An endless number of topics don’t involve politics, religion or social issues.

“We're often too quick to talk, and not willing enough to listen,” Wissow said. “We don't have to listen to somebody's rant about their political thing. But we can pick out something in the room or we can pick out something that they're wearing and ask them to tell a story about it. And often, that's a way of moving somebody into a space where they're telling you something that they're happy to tell you about, and you're going to be happy because you might actually learn something about them that you never knew before.”

There are circumstances, Wissow acknowledged, that may call for courage and resoluteness. 

“To me, the only emergency is if there's someone else in the room who's being attacked,” Wissow said. “In our very pluralistic society these days, we often are at holiday gatherings with people from a lot of different cultures and traditions. We may have brought a partner to a Christmas celebration who doesn't celebrate Christmas, who comes from a faith tradition that doesn't recognize Christmas as a holiday even. And if that person is being attacked, and especially if it's our partner, that's a really big dilemma.”

The important thing is to ponder each step before you take it: “Maybe this is the time to let most things just fly by, put off the convincing for another day and appreciate the quirky diversity of these people you call family,” Wissow suggested.

Related:  Download broadcast-ready soundbites with Wissow.

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