Podcast: Holiday Coping Techniques

We all love and look forward to the holidays, but even good things can be stressful.  Listen in as our guest, PsychCentral.com’s founder, Dr. John Grohol, tells us how to avoid overindulging this year, how to handle the extra work burdens of the season, and how to deal with that annoying relative.


Guest information for ‘Holiday Coping’ Podcast Episode

John M. Grohol, Psy.D. is a pioneer in online mental health and psychology. Recognizing the educational and social potential of the Internet in 1995, Dr. Grohol has transformed the way people could access mental health and psychology resources online. Pre-dating the National Institute for Mental Health and mental health advocacy organizations, Dr. Grohol was the first to publish the diagnostic criteria for common mental disorders, such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. His leadership has helped break down the barriers of stigma often associated with mental health concerns, bringing trusted resources and support communities to the Internet.

He has worked tirelessly as a patient advocate to improve the quality of information available for mental health patients, highlighting quality mental health resources, and building safe, private support communities and social networks in numerous health topics.

About The Psych Central Podcast Host

Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.

Computer Generated Transcript for ‘Holiday Coping’ Episode

Editor’s NotePlease be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.

Announcer: You’re listening to the Psych Central Podcast, where guest experts in the field of psychology and mental health share thought-provoking information using plain, everyday language. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.

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Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of the Psych Central Podcast. And we’re welcoming back to the show editor-in-chief and founder of PsychCentral.com, Dr. John Grohol. John, it’s good to have you back for a second week in a row.

Dr. John Grohol: Good to be with you again.

Gabe Howard: Well, we’re really glad you’re here because it’s the holidays. And John, do you find the holidays to be stressful?

Dr. John Grohol: Yeah, I think like most people, I definitely experience some stress, probably not as much stress as people with lots of kids and schedules that they have to plan around. But I think most people, regardless of their family size or their religious beliefs, find the holidays a little bit stressful.

Gabe Howard: It’s a little bit of a weird dynamic, right? On one hand, it’s the holidays, it’s about joy and togetherness and Thanksgiving to be thankful and Christmas and all of the other holidays. Everybody is just melding together and it’s supposed to be joyful. And now we’re doing a podcast called Coping with the Holidays and How to Get Over the Stress. It seems like if something’s causing you stress, it’s bad. But I think we like holidays, right?

Dr. John Grohol: Yeah. There’s a misnomer in society that all stress is bad and that happy events don’t have any stress. But one of the most stressful events in a person’s life is getting married, for instance. So of course, you can have a very happy event and come together as a family as we do during the holidays and still feel a fair amount of stress.

Gabe Howard: John, obviously a lot can be said about coping with the holidays and stress over the holidays, but we decided to break this episode down into three main areas that the average person is going to grapple with. And the first of those three is just the stress due to the planning. You used the example of a wedding and there’s a lot to plan with a wedding and there’s a lot to plan with Thanksgiving dinner or any of the other holidays that happen around this time of year. And I think that’s understandable because you’re having many guests into your home. Can you talk about ways to handle that?

Dr. John Grohol: Sure, one of the first things you should do, of course, is to plan early, earlier the better. So obviously Thanksgiving this year it’s a little too late, but it’s not too late for Christmas or the other kinds of events that you may be planning end of the year, New Year’s, that kind of thing. The earlier you plan, the reason this helps is because you feel more organized. You can get more organized. You can have things lined up in a row. And if you need help, you can solicit that help ahead of time rather than trying to run around with your head, cut off and calling people and emailing and texting people and saying, hey, I need this, I need this. Can you bring this? Can you help me with this? It feels a lot more stressful when you don’t have the time. So making the time by planning early can be super helpful and very important.

Gabe Howard: Back when I was very little, my mom did everything for Thanksgiving. She invited the guest. She did all the shopping. She did all the cooking. She did all of the entertaining. She made sure that everybody was happy and comfortable. And we just sat and watched the parade or football or talked among ourselves. Years later, my mother finally snapped and yelled at all of us and called us lazy. From our perspective, we didn’t know that she needed any help. From my mother’s perspective, we should have known that she needed help. And there’s a lot to unpack in there. But let’s say that you’re the host and you want people to chip in. My mom didn’t feel that she was empowered to ask her guests to help. Can you speak about that for a moment? Because obviously that wasn’t a good situation, because ultimately it made my mother’s holiday less enjoyable for her.

Dr. John Grohol: Delegation is key to planning a big event, whether it’s a family dinner or something else. And a lot of people have a problem with delegation. They have a problem asking for help. And it’s not just for chores such as planning a dinner. A lot of people have problems asking for help and in many parts of their lives. So this is a very common behavior and a thing that a lot of people struggle with. I think the key thing other people can do when they see someone with 27 balls in the air trying to juggle them all at the same time is to offer specific help on specific tasks that you know that you can complete and will take a little burden off the person who seems to be doing too much. So instead of saying, how can I help? Which is very general. And a lot of people feel even overwhelmed by the question. You pick a specific activity where, you know, you can complete that task and it will take something off of their plate, such as, hey, I’m going to set the dinner table. Hey, I’m going to make the vegetables. Hey, I’m going to mash the potatoes. Offer specific help, and if, you know, like a lot of people sometimes have things that they want to do because they feel like they’re the only person who can do it their way. So stay away from those things. Stuffing the turkey or cooking a turkey often is a very personal thing for many home cooks or whatever. So find those things that the person that needs the help isn’t going to make a big deal about.

Gabe Howard: To approach it from the other angle, obviously, my mother waited until she just couldn’t take it anymore and exploded. Not the best way to handle it. How can somebody in, for example, my mother’s position ask for help in a meaningful and not anger-provoking way?

Dr. John Grohol: It’s important to start early. If you wait until the very last minute, you know, 30 minutes before dinner is going to be served, I think your temper is going to flare. Your nerves are on edge because everything has to come together pretty quickly and you feel overwhelmed. So doing it earlier is always better. Even making a little list and saying, oh, I’m going to have Gabe help me with this specific thing, he’s going to help make the vegetables. Someone else is going to do the table settings, OK? And just as people come in the door, you say, hey, would you mind helping a little bit with dinner prep this year? Completely in a very casual way. But as they’re coming into the door. You don’t wait until they settle themselves in and they’re watching a football game, they’re playing with the kids, or involved in something else where they feel like they’re being taken away from that. So if you approach it first thing, right after you say you’re hellos, I think that can be of great help.

Gabe Howard: One of the things that we instituted in my family, we just split it right down gender lines. Women do all the cooking, men do all the cleanup. And this has worked in my family. Now, I’m not saying it’s going to work in your family, but it really was a huge step up from the old system of mom did everything. And it allows one group of people to enjoy the day while the other people do the work. And then it completely flips. Right? The people who did the cooking are now enjoying the day and and the rest of us are cleaning up. And it’s it’s worked well. I think it’s also reasonable to think outside the box on some of these things. My mom decided that she was tired of cleaning her house for all of the company. So even though my mother is not somebody who particularly likes hiring cleaning services, she doesn’t use them year round. She always hires them for the one-offs before holidays. And this makes her happy. So it’s I think it’s worth mentioning if you have the means and the availability, hire other people to do it for you. Cater that dinner.

Dr. John Grohol: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t know that a lot of people are comfortable or capable of maybe doing some of those things. But if the family chips in to help, that can often be beneficial rather than putting it all into one person. I’ll tell you, one year when I went down to Delaware to visit with family, we went out to dinner one Thanksgiving eve to a buffet, Thanksgiving dinner, and it was something very different. And we were able to relax and have a really good time just talking amongst ourselves at the dinner table without having to actually worry about the dinner prep or the dinner cleanup.

Gabe Howard: John, I like all of those suggestions and I think it’s a great idea. Let’s move on to main area that people grapple with #2. And this is the one that always gets me in trouble. It’s dealing with that relative that you just don’t get along with. Whether it’s because you’re just polar opposites, you have different political views, different religious views. They don’t like Marvel movies and you do. There just always seems to be that relative that you probably only see on holidays because you don’t get along. That rubs you the wrong way.

Dr. John Grohol: This is an area where a lot of people struggle with because we’re supposed to love our family members regardless of their views, their ideology and how much they may annoy us. I think most families have one member at least who does this or an uncle or aunt who gets too drunk every holiday dinner and it’s uncomfortable. And a lot of people have a hard time spending good quality time in a situation like that because of that one person. But your issues with another person are actually your issues. Even if the person is behaving badly or in a way that you don’t approve of, doesn’t mean that you have a right to judge that person or you have an expectation that that person should behave according to what your standards are, what you think is right. So one way you can deal with this kind of situation is to simply spend as little time as possible in that person’s company. Now, some might call this or look at this as avoidance, but avoidance of a negative stimuli is actually a good thing. You don’t want to have negative stimuli in your life that you’re constantly exposed to. That’s what leads to anxious reactions and even depression. When you have this person who you’re forced to spend time with all of the time in your life. Luckily, with families and family dinners and holiday traditions, we usually only have to spend time with these kind of people for a few hours and might just be a few hours a year. Maybe they only come once a year. So avoiding them is probably a very good coping strategy. That is the easiest to do and is pretty darn effective.

Gabe Howard: One of the things that we instituted in my family is the no religion and no politics rule. My mother set the rules. She kind of rules the roost and she’s like, hey, listen, we can talk about anything but no religion and no politics because it you know, frankly, those are those are minefields. Right? There’s a lot of different political views, a lot of different religious views. And we just don’t want to get into it. This has helped a lot. And we sort of also self-police on no parenting advice, no financial advice and things like this. And this has really helped. Do you think that there is an onus on the host to set certain rules to keep topics off and then enforce them almost like a support group? Moderator.

Dr. John Grohol: I mean, it depends on the family and the family dynamics and whether a person is comfortable taking on that role. I think it’s ideal that a person could set some rules for their house and have people respect and follow them. But families are notorious for violating boundaries amongst themselves. So even if you’ve set the rules that’s no guarantee that all of the family members are going to follow them equally, one is always trying to push the limits, so to speak. So.

Gabe Howard: I really like what you said earlier about how you don’t have to engage that avoidance, setting boundaries. These are good ideas. The thing that I try to think about is, am I going to make a difference? If Uncle Bob says something offensive and Gabe stands up and, you know, beats his chest and gives him all the reasons that he’s wrong, did I change anybody’s mind? Did I affect positive change or did I just create a negative environment and make the holidays a little less enjoyable for me? I realized that I wasn’t doing anything positive. I was only doing something negative. And I think that’s good advice for our listeners. We like to believe that we’re going to change the world because of that Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year’s Eve argument. But in reality, we didn’t do anything except cause a scene.

Dr. John Grohol: Absolutely, and the key is, what do you want out of family gathering? Do you want upset and hurt feelings? Or are you looking for a time to reconnect with people that you have a lot of shared history with? What do you value? Most people value the idea of spending time with this shared history with family members who get your in-jokes and get you. And don’t necessarily really do much judgement of you because they understand where you’re coming from. So if that’s the kinds of things you value, rather than being right or having to prove a point to people that aren’t likely to change their minds based upon one short conversation they have with you over a glass of wine at a holiday dinner. I think you’re gonna come away from the experience much more happy and feeling satisfied.

Gabe Howard: I completely agree. And even the most difficult person in the world, you’re bound to have something in common. Find that common ground and spend the day discussing that. I really think that you’ll get more out of it. And, you know, hey, maybe you won’t want to fight about politics so much when you realize that you both like Marvel movies.

Dr. John Grohol: I think it helps to keep in mind to let things roll off your back, not everything that you disagree with a family member or friend has to turn into a big argument. There are some things that you probably just should let go. Is it that important to you? Does it really matter? These are questions to ask yourself when you find yourself in a conversation that you’re feeling a little uncomfortable with. But you’re not sure which way to take it. Maybe the way to take it is to change the topic or to mosey on over to another family member to start a conversation very politely. So there’s a lot of options available to you. You’re not beholden to being in a negative situation and staying there.

Gabe Howard: We’ll be right back after these messages.

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Gabe Howard: We’re back discussing coping with the holidays with Dr. John Grohol. Now, the first two areas that people grapple with, the stress due to planning and dealing with a relative that you just don’t get along with, those tend to be a big group dynamic. The third one that people struggle with over the holidays is overeating and overdrinking. And that’s very personal in nature. That’s not necessarily something that you’re doing as a group, although the group might comment on it. How do we handle overdrinking and overeating because food and drink are plentiful at the holidays?

Dr. John Grohol: It helps to be self-aware. Obviously, the more you’re aware that these are issues for you, the more you can plan for them ahead of time. If you don’t plan for them ahead of time, chances are you’re just going to repeat the same behavior that you’ve done in years past. We are suckers for habits, and habits, as anyone who listens to the show over a long period of time knows it, habits are hard to break. They’re not easy to just get yourself out of. You can’t just usually will yourself to stop doing something that has become a habit. So being aware of that and planning for ahead of time means that you need to kind of police yourself. And the best way to do that is, again, to sort of remove yourself from the situation where you start to see yourself falling into that habit over and over again. If it comes to overeating, it means cutting down on portion size the very first time. Easy way of doing this is cut everything in half. It’s easy to say, and I understand that it may be hard to do, but if you take smaller portions ahead of time, you can always go back for seconds. There’s usually no rule about having seconds or thirds or whatever, but if you start small, you might be surprised by the time you finish that first plate that you’re starting to feel pretty full already and you want to save room for that tasty dessert later on. So that may help you with overeating and cutting back a little bit on that.

Gabe Howard: Let’s flip this to the other side of the family. Let’s say that they see somebody over eating and there’s this notion to help. Are you sure you want seconds, Gabe? Is that too much food for you, Gabe? Or should I remove the pie, Gabe? And as somebody who has binge eating disorder and used to weigh 550 pounds, I experienced a lot of help from my family, who I’d like to point out was well-meaning. What advice do you have for family members that want to intervene in this process on behalf of their loved ones? Because it almost never turns out well.

Dr. John Grohol: Yeah, the advice is, don’t. It’s plain, it’s simple, and it’s straightforward. Don’t attempt to make any kind of comments or interventions with a loved one or family member during the holidays. It’s just bad timing. It’s not going to come off well. And the person is already struggling internally. They don’t need external reminders of the fact that they’re eating too much. That’s something that they wake up every day feeling and thinking about a hundred or a thousand times a day, every meal. So for a family member to think that they’re telling the person who’s over eating something new or, you know, they can offer a word of advice that’s going to help, probably isn’t going to help that much. And I understand. Eating disorders are one of the most difficult things to overcome. They are a constant battle. And frankly, I don’t think necessarily even any advice I can give on a podcast like this is going to help all that much because these are serious mental health issues that a person typically needs treatment for. To actually get help.

Gabe Howard: One of the things that I’m fond of saying is, listen, if pointing out a health issue made that health issue go away, nobody would ever be sick. Pointing it out just creates tension and the shame over the holidays. And now we’ve got two problems. We’ve got the health issue and we have a ruined holiday. And that can be very mentally unhealthy for all involved.

Dr. John Grohol: It hurts, emotionally hurts, and I’m not sure why anybody would consciously want to inflict emotional pain on people that they supposedly love and care about. So if you do love and care about a family member, best thing you can do is to say nothing, say nothing. They need to work on these issues on their own. And as a family member, you can be supportive of them if they ever come to you on their own privately to talk about it. But in a public venue such as a family dinner, that is not the time or place to make comments about it.

Gabe Howard: Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about drinking too much, and by drinking too much, I mean, you’re afraid that you have a loved one who is an alcoholic. I know the same rules apply. You know, say nothing if pointing it out made it better. But is it ever reasonable to decide that listen, we’re gonna have a dry Christmas, a dry New Year’s, a dry Thanksgiving? Or along the same lines, decide not to invite the loved one who may have a problem with alcoholism because that can get really tough? Right?

Dr. John Grohol: I think these are very interesting and difficult grounds in which to navigate. They don’t have clear answers because it depends on the family situation and how strong the relationships are amongst family members and whatnot. I certainly think any host can set the rules for what they want their dinner to be. So if a host says, I want to have a dry holiday dinner and tells everybody ahead of time, then everybody has knows ahead of time and sets their expectations accordingly. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone and that’s key. So you definitely want to let people know ahead of time and then people can make their own decisions about whether they want to avoid going to a family, get together or just because there won’t be any alcohol there. So that would be up to each individual family member to make. And the host has to realize that maybe not all family members will come if you set a dry dinner, but chances are the ones that you want will probably be there. So just like overeating, it’s never appropriate to talk about as an issue during family dinner. However, unlike overeating, there is a safety concern when it comes time to drive home. So if you are concerned for someone’s safety because you feel like they’ve been over drinking it over indulging, you have the absolute right to say, look, I don’t think you’re safe to drive home tonight. I will take you home. I will call Uber. I will call a taxi. Or you can spend the night here. And I think that is every host’s right and even obligation.

Gabe Howard: John, along the same lines, what can the person who may fear that they are overindulging with alcohol do to support themselves?

Dr. John Grohol: It’s the same kind of strategy that I think might help you with cutting back a little bit, which is to just be aware of your alcohol intake. Like be more mindful of it as you’re doing it and try and look at the time. I find that you’re observing the time that you’re pouring each glass of wine or having a drink or a beer. You might be surprised that the time is going by much more slowly than you think. Like, Oh, I’ve had three glasses of wine and it’s been three hours. No, you’ve had three glasses of wine. It’s been 45 minutes. So if you keep track of the time as you’re drinking, you might be able to sort of slow things down a little bit and moderate your drinking, because there is a lot to be said for moderate drinking. You don’t have to overindulge to still enjoy yourself. You can have two glasses of wine, most people are good with that, over the course of two or three or four hours, that’s not really going to have a significant impact. The key is not to keep drinking over and over again. And before you know it, you’ve had six glasses of wine over, you know, one or two hours. That’s the difference. So drinking in moderation is something to work toward as a goal for every one of these holiday dinners. If overindulging is an issue for you.

Gabe Howard: John, thank you so much for being here. I know that Christmas is looming in front of us. Did you have a good Thanksgiving?

Dr. John Grohol: I did. I had an excellent Thanksgiving, we spent some time with Nancy’s family, and I am going to make the journey down to Delaware to visit my family for Christmas time. So I look forward to that dinner as well.

Gabe Howard: Well, thank you so much for being here and to all of our listeners. Please have happy holidays, a happy New Year, and I hope these coping strategies will help you make the most of the rest of the holiday season. And remember, you can get one week of free, affordable, convenient, private online counseling anytime, anywhere, simply by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. We’ll see everyone next week.

Announcer: You’ve been listening to The Psych Central Podcast. Want your audience to be wowed at your next event? Feature an appearance and LIVE RECORDING of the Psych Central Podcast right from your stage! Email us at show@psychcentral.com for details. Previous episodes can be found at PsychCentral.com/show or on your favorite podcast player. Psych Central is the internet’s oldest and largest independent mental health website run by mental health professionals. Overseen by Dr. John Grohol, Psych Central offers trusted resources and quizzes to help answer your questions about mental health, personality, psychotherapy, and more. Please visit us today at PsychCentral.com.  To learn more about our host, Gabe Howard, please visit his website at gabehoward.com. Thank you for listening and please share widely.


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