• Valerie McDonnell

Practicing Safe Holidays: 4 Ways to Protect Yourself From Infectious Stress


*Note: Client anecdotes used with permission



The holidays are upon us!


In our wildly diverse nation, that means something different to everybody. Often it means love, tradition, celebration of another year around the sun. But it can also mean stress, family drama, and unhealthy habits.


Now is the time to prepare yourself for the stressful parts—so you can actually enjoy time with (or without) family.


Use this stress-master guide to navigate your holiday plans, expectations, and concerns—and have fun while you’re at it.



Clear, strategic communication


To reiterate for the millionth time: Clear communication is the key to every other aspect of sexual and mental health.


Broken record? Maybe. Theme? Definitely. Call it a mantra.


Look: as close as you and your partner(s) may be; they can’t read your mind (nor would you want them to). So it’s on you to make sure you’ve made clear your expectations and needs ahead of time. And that you listen to theirs. That means dedicating time and focus for the conversation. Like...not while you’re watching the series finale of your latest binge.


You’re on each other’s team. Strong teams coordinate their moves and spend time on strategy.


Now is the time to sit your partner down and discuss the holidays—the emotions, the logistics, the concerns and expectations you have for each other. In the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln: “If you give me 6 hours to chop down a tree, I’ll spend the first 4 sharpening the axe.”


But don’t spring it on them. Ask your partner or family member when would be a good time in the next couple days to focus and talk about the holidays. Have your empathy-driven conversation and then revisit soon after to confirm your action plans.


Keep reading for 3 ways to protect yourself and enhance your holiday experience.



Set clear boundaries


Many of us aren’t brought up with a notion of how to set boundaries. Which means many of us get taken advantage of, or put into uncomfortable situations.


But it’s your right to set boundaries to protect your physical and mental wellbeing.


Maybe that means telling your mom this week that you don’t have time to bring your usual dish but you’ll bring some wine instead. Maybe it means telling anyone who asks: No we’re not sure about having kids and we’re not interested in talking about it. Maybe it means stopping after one plate, and not being pushed into seconds.


And sometimes it’s much more complicated.


The scenario: A client is scheduled to visit family for the holidays and they know there’s a good chance that their abuser will be there. Other family members know about the abuse but refuse to acknowledge it. Unfortunately skipping the gathering isn’t an option.


Without a significant other to help, they decided to enlist a similar-aged cousin as their teammate and explained the situation.


Together they decided on a few ground rules:

  • Never be alone with the abuser

  • The cousin would run interference on any attempted contact

  • They’d both leave at an appointed time and grab a drink together to unwind

  • In the days before the gathering, they’d practice the 5x5 Sensory Grounding technique for managing anxiety and other PTSD symptoms

The preparation has brought the two cousins closer than ever before, and my client is well on their way to feeling ready to face the event and the range of triggers they’ll face. When a concern threatens to overwhelm with anxiety—they observe the space around for:


5 things they can see

4 things they can touch

3 things they can hear

2 things they can smell

1 emotion they feel


Which helps them recenter in the present, where there’s a system in place to maintain boundaries and protect them from potential problems.


Even if that scenario is beyond what you’re facing, the point of it is the systematic approach. Not pretending there’s no problem; not just accepting it either. Instead, managing it with strategy and support.


The benefit: Setting boundaries can be incredibly empowering. It can bring a renewed sense of control. Undercut the anxiety of whether an invisible line will be crossed. And it gives you a voice to protect yourself from things that trigger stress.



Establish a timeframe


You don’t have to fall into open-ended gatherings, whether in person or virtual. Announce at the start (or better yet before the start) that you have X hours and then you’ll be leaving. If they ask why—call it scheduled personal time per coach recommendation. I’m a coach. I recommend everyone schedule daily personal time.


The main thing is to set the expectation beforehand so it doesn’t seem like you’re trying to escape when it’s time to leave. Remember to approach the conversation with empathy. See through their eyes.


The benefit: You won’t spend mental energy wondering when it’s time to leave. You’ll be able to focus on enjoying the time you do have. And hopefully your family will too.



Get together the day after the day


Sometimes the stress of expectations for a holiday can overshadow the actual event. Traditions can become dogma. Expectations go unmet. Bitterness ruins dessert.


The scenario: Take it from this couple who decided last year to have their own one-on-one Thanksgiving Day and visit with family the weekend after:

It was the best Thanksgiving ever. My mother gets so wound up with the big day that any little thing goes wrong and it’s a teary, hand-wringing disaster. Happens every year. To the point that I’m a mess of anxiety starting at Halloween. So last year we told her in September we were going to have our own just-us dinner on actual Thanksgiving and that we’d visit her for dinner the next day.
She wasn’t sure at first—but we started the conversation by asking her what was the most important part of Thanksgiving, and she said seeing family, and we told her we had a new idea for visiting her, and because we came at it from her needs, she was able to see our point and agreed to try it.
We’re doing it again this year and actually can’t wait! I haven’t been excited for Thanksgiving since I was about 8 years old.

One of the reasons their experience went the way it did was because they took the time to empathize and align their decision with the mother’s perspective and values. Instead of setting up a defensive situation, they explained to her how she’d benefit, by getting them to herself for a whole day—instead of in frantic fragments along with a dozen other people.


The benefit: Focusing on what’s actually important rather than on annual habits not only lets you sidestep the dangers of sacred expectation, but also gives you space to create brand new traditions.



Make it playtime


The scenario: Every year when this couple travels to visit family for the holidays they have a huge blowout fight the first night over nothing—some spark sets off the built-up tension and stress and the seething conflagration threatens their marriage every year. Not to mention ruining the trip if they can’t extract themselves from the fight.

Well this year we have a plan. Right when we arrive, we’ll excuse ourselves to “take a nap” and we’ll do 30 minutes of Sensate Focus no matter what, before we even say a word to each other. To make sure we do it, we’re sending our son $500 on Venmo with instructions to accept the payment if we don’t keep our promise. And reject it if we do.
Our relationship coach has helped us practice the technique every week, which has been pretty amazing for our relationship anyway, on top of helping us with this problem. We’re both looking forward to the trip. Really excited about turning this cycle around.
Plus if we don’t, we’re out 500 bucks, which we can’t afford. So yeah. That’s the plan.

The benefit: Creating a fun secret between you can help solidify your team unity against the onslaught of stress. A sort of escape hatch into a world only you and your partner can enter, in the midst of any chaos.


I know of one couple who has sex in the car when they arrive at any family gathering—to fortify their connection and have something to flash eyes at each other about through the event, with no one the wiser.


Of course I can’t recommend that particular course of action—but ritualizing your togetherness through stressful times can help strengthen your bond and deflect the stress.



Don’t wait—start today


Send a proactive text or email to anyone you need to communicate with. Don’t just call out of the blue—no one wants that. Ask for a good time to discuss your plans. Then stick with the system, whatever temptations or obstacles come up.


You can do it.


Need some guidance? Schedule a free consultation and we can go over some ideas.




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Wordwork by Quillpower

Sex Therapy at Home

Better communication for better intimacy

Exercises for mastering anxiety & facing fear

2567 Homeview Dr

Richmond, VA 23294

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© 2020 by Valerie McDonnell

Wordwork by Quillpower