Thanksgiving is just around the corner and many families are busy with cooking or travel plans.  Although this is a festive time of year, there are those for whom the season is difficult and filled with pain.

Sometimes the contrast between the Norman Rockwell painting and a person’s reality can be depressing. Indeed, having unrealistically high expectations may create unnecessary disappointment.

Besides the hype there are all kinds of reasons that can cause problems.  Physical or emotional illness, financial or work stress, marital conflicts, recent loss or loneliness are just a few of some of the challenges that can complicate holiday celebrations.

Likewise, when extended family members or friends gather, long standing feuds and political differences may be a source of strife. So, today I want to offer some tips that can reduce your stress and increase your joy for the holiday season, whatever the problem : 

— Learn from the past but don’t be bound to it.

If you’ve previously had a bad experience with Thanksgiving, previously, understand that, although you can’t control everything,  you can control yourself and do things differently this year.

Reflect on your past experiences and try to understand how things went wrong . Once you have identified predictable conflicts, you can know what to look for and what to avoid.

Sometimes folks get stuck into thinking that because things have always been done a certain way, they can’t be changed. Don’t be afraid to adapt and makes changes that would be helpful.  Sure, family traditions are nice  but you don’t always  have to follow them. For example, if someone has a serious food allergy maybe menu changes are in order. .

–Think and plan ahead.  Once  you’ve identified the problem areas you’ll know what changes could make things better. If problems arose because a gathering went on too long,  shorten it. Or, if you got into an argument because a political debate got out of hand, beware to avoid similar discussions.

— Reality test your expectations. Much unhappiness surrounding holidays stems from having idealized expectations which are simply unrealistic. the meal does not have to be perfect. Likewise, it’s not a tragedy that everyone who was invited will not be able to show up. And, it’s helpful to realize that not everyone will necessarily be in a holiday mood.

It’s especially important to be wary of wishful thinking. Certain family dynamics may be difficult but to think that they will magically change because it s holiday is unlikely. Accepting differences  rather than struggling to change the unchangeable can go along way towards reducing one’s experience of stress.

Likewise, keep your expectations for yourself in check.  Having reasonable limits about what you can do is the best way to keep from feeling overwhelmed. It is crucial to give yourself permission to ask for help and to accept help that is offered.

— Have a Plan B.  Along with the virtues of understanding, realistic planning and not struggling with inconvenient facts, having a Plan B to deal with unexpected occurrences is necessary to keep stress in check.

Almost inevitably something  is bound to happen or not go according to plan. Using what you have learned from the past to identify predictable difficulties allows you to know what to do if something goes awry.  Having a backup plan is important  not just for menus or weather but also for coping with your own experience.  

Being able to monitor your stress level throughout the day is also important.  If things are becoming just “too much”, it is helpful to give yourself permission to step aside and take a break.

The Serenity Prayer is especially helpful to lower stress around the holidays. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.

— A Special word for those who’ve experienced  loss or who are lonely.

Holidays, but especially Thanksgiving, are difficult for those who have recently divorced or who are grieving lost loved ones. Those who live alone and who are isolated from friendship are more vulnerable to anxiety and depression in general but special occasions can make it even worse. 

Of course, each person is unique and experiences loss or loneliness in there own way. That said, if you are one who is grieving or lonely, it can be helpful to think, in advance about options for how you would like to spend the day.  Would you prefer to go to a family gathering or to spend the day by yourself?  For those who are without family or friends, ask yourself would you prefer to reach out to community resources and be with others or would you prefer to be alone? 

For those who have aggrieved  or isolated family members or friends, two thoughts: Don’t be afraid to invite or suggest but also respect their decisions and don’t push.


All in  all , I think Holidays are a wonderful opportunity to call time out from our busy lives and reflect on larger things. Indeed, Thanksgiving is not just a tradition or time for a family gatherings. It’s a time when we can put our lives in perspective. It can help us recognize and feel gratitude for life itself.

Blessings to you all on this special day. May it enrich your spirit and increase love in your life.

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC                          11 18 2023