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Why do we stress out over family gatherings?

Nov 23, 2022 10:32AM ● By Laura Durenberger
Photo: Kevin Curtis

By Jeff Wagner - CBS Minnesota News - November 22, 2022

Family gatherings can bring joy this time of year. But they can also carry a lot of stress, pressure and awkward moments. That's why many people dread them.

Why do we stress out over family gatherings? And how can we better navigate them? Good Question. Jeff Wagner got some tips from health providers and everyday people.

"You just get a whole host of people with differing opinions and you never know what's going to come out of their mouths," said Stephanie Gallagher of Lake Elmo.

"You gotta organize, kind of tidy up, you know, hide all the natural, everyday living things," said Amanda Whitson, joking that she'll make her home look like a museum before guests arrive.

"'What are you doing for work? Do you have a girlfriend?' All that stuff," Mark Grangaard of Edina said of the probing questions that come about.

And then you add 'holiday cheer,' which makes people a little bit more free to say their feelings," said Kortney Nordrum of Minneapolis. "I'm talking about booze."

The opportunities to stress out or cringe over conversations when extended families gather this time of year is nearly as plentiful as the dinner menu, which in itself can burnout the cook.

"The stress is to have this big, wonderful, delicious meal. A lot of pressure," added Nordrum, who said she has to prepare a meal for more than 20 people.

With all those people under one roof, many variables are at play. According to HealthPartners, the stress comes from:

- Differing opinions and values

- Varied communication skills and empathy

- Generational differences on world views

- Topics of conversation that can be triggering

- Differing comfort levels on sharing personal information

What types of questions can lead to uncomfortable conversations?

"Are you expanding your family? Are you traveling? Why are you not traveling," said Holly Dahlen.

"I have probably an overdue engagement so I'm gonna have questions about that I think," said Grangaard. "Everyone's like, 'I don't want to bother you, but like what's happening [with the wedding]?'"

To better handle those conversations, Allina Health suggests:

- Plan out answers to anticipated questions and say them with confidence.

- Be understanding, since the person asking questions might mean well or not realize the topic is triggering.

- Remember, you don't have to answer. If you'd like, have a brief, yet polite response to explain why.

- Have other topics in mind to divert the conversation.

What are some of your tactics to ease the stress of the day?

"The kids! When things get awkward just duck out and go play with the kids," said Nordrum, who enjoys being the "cool aunt."

"As soon as somebody brings up politics, you gotta go 'help cut cucumbers,'" Dahlen said in reference to an old "code word" her family would use to get out of a conversation.

Other tips to avoid stressful situations include:

- Staying busy or making yourself useful, such as helping out in the kitchen.

- Setting boundaries, whether it's the type of conversations you want to have, or the amount time spent around relatives,

- Setting realistic expectations. Don't expect perfection or for things to always go well.

On the flip side, family gatherings can also be good for you. Being around people who make you feel loved or heard can improve your mental health.

To read this original story and more news, follow this link to the CBS Minnesota News website.

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