Home for The Holidays: A Survival Guide

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A blazing fireplace, a table swelling with food, close times with family, a much-needed break from classes or work... The holidays usually conjure pleasant images and feelings about reconnecting with "home" - family, friends and places many are distanced from throughout the rest of the year. But for many people, anxiety related to being in close confines with family and friends brings no tidings of comfort and joy.

"The holiday can obligate us to face changed or lost relationships, juggle competing social demands and challenge our emotions," said Dennis Heitzmann, director of Penn State's Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). "The difference between our expectations and the actual holiday experience can be quite jarring."

After being away from home geographically or emotionally for an extended period of time, people may find that a different rhythm of life persists upon returning. Whether a college student on winter break or an adult taking a holiday vacation from work, holiday travelers might find things at home are not the same as they were previously.

"The expectations of family and friends about who we used to be, rather than who we are now, can lead to complications and conflict," said Heitzmann.

But Heitzmann said there are guidelines people can keep in mind to ensure that reconnecting with family and friends goes as smoothly as possible.

"With some thought and planning it is possible for you to reduce potential conflicts and stress throughout this period," said Heitzmann.

First lesson: Limited expectations equal little-to-no disappointment. Adopting an easygoing attitude before embarking upon the journey home will act as an emotional lubricant in the case that something contentious does occur.

"Having limited or reasonable expectations is the best preparation for being satisfied with whatever happens," Heitzmann said. "'Going with the flow' can keep us from getting stuck even when others may be."

Lesson two: Travelers should inform family of their plans for the break and do so before they arrive home. Taking this simple step will help the family have an idea of what the traveler would like to do, and the family will be less likely to plan all of their time for them.

"If you will be splitting time with various family members, establish your plans ahead of time and inform everyone. There is no need to feel guilty about your decisions," Heitzmann said.

And if dissention arises within the family when these plans are shared?

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"If questioned, state decisively that you are doing the best you can to be available and to accommodate everyone," Heitzmann said. "By sharing your schedule ahead of time, you are showing that you're trying to be as conscientious as possible."

Integral to that second step, Heitzmann said, is that travelers should make certain their plans include their family in some way.

"This will help them feel included in your life and make it less likely that they will try to plan extra activities for you in order to get a chance to see you. Quality time with them is far superior to mere linear time," he said.

The third step toward a happy homecoming: Don't fall into the gift getting/giving trap.

"Instead of dwelling on what gifts you would like to give or receive, ask yourself what three qualities or experiences you want to have more of this holiday," said Heitzmann. "For example, time to relax, good communication, intimate conversations and a chance to explore a hobby might be on your list."

Another homecoming-preparation tactic for holiday travelers is to prepare family in advance if there is potentially inflammatory news to report to them.

"If you are a student, for example, and are struggling with your grades this semester, waiting to spring the news on your family during Christmas dinner may not be the best approach," said Heitzmann.

Heitzmann suggested establishing times when these topics are off-limits to discussion. This will allow everyone time to regroup and focus on the more enjoyable aspects of the holiday.

Finally, holiday homecomings can be made much less stressful by following a few common-sense rules. Heitzmann said:

  • Stay physically healthy by getting exercise everyday, eating sensibly and getting enough sleep.

  • Maintain a sense of humor.

  • Be safe. Drive carefully; avoid risky behavior, and make well-considered judgments.

"If you take a few minutes now to think the holiday through in your head and lay your plans, it might save you a great deal of related anxiety," Heitzmann said. "And then all you have to do is sit back and have an enjoyable, comfortable and restful break."

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