Surviving — and even enjoying — the holidays

The holidays can be a stressful time for LGBTQ people and their families, but there are several strategies that you can use to help reduce stress and enjoy a happy holiday this year.

If you are LGBTQ, don’t assume you know how somebody will react to news of your sexual orientation or gender identity — you may be surprised. The hectic holiday pace may cause family members to act differently than they would under less stressful conditions. Remember that “coming out” is a continuous process. You may have to “come out” many times.

Don’t wait for your family’s attitude to change to have a special holiday. Recognize that it takes time for people to adjust to all sorts of changes. It took you time to come to terms with who you are; your family and friends may need time of their own. Let your family’s judgments be theirs to work on, as long as they are kind to you. If it’s too difficult to be with your family, create your own holiday gathering with friends and loved ones. The bottom line should be concern for your emotional health.

Before the visit

Make a decision about being “out” to each family member before you visit. If you are partnered, discuss in advance how you will talk about your relationship or show affection with one another. If you bring your partner home, don’t wait until late into the holiday evening to raise the issue of sleeping arrangements. Make plans in advance. Have alternate plans if the situation becomes difficult at home. Find out about local LGBTQ resources. If you do plan to come out to your family over the holidays, have support available, possibly including PFLAG publications and the number of a local PFLAG chapter.

During the visit

Focus on common interests. Reassure family members that you are still the same person they’ve always known. If you are partnered, be sensitive to his or her needs as well as your own. Remember to affirm yourself. Realize that you don’t need your family’s approval. Connect with someone else who is LGBTQ or someone who cares — by phone or in person — who understands what you are going through and will affirm you along the way.

Often people try to counter emotional strain by overindulging in food or drink or placing still further demands on themselves by going to bigger and more elaborate efforts to ensure their holidays are the best ever. Consider engaging some of these strategies to avoid the holiday blues:

— Keep your expectations for the holiday season manageable: Be realistic about what you can and cannot do — as well as what you want to do and don’t want to do.

— Remember the holiday season does not banish reasons for feeling sad or lonely: You may be feeling out of sync with the season’s “jollier” aspects because of something going on in your life. When you feel down, avoid critical self-perceptions and instead try to articulate the understanding you need from those around you.

—Limit predictable sources of stress: If you feel the annual trappings of shopping, decorating, cooking and attending social events risk becoming overwhelming, use discretion and limit your commitments.

— Don’t fall prey to commercial hype: You can show love and caring in lots of thoughtful ways that don’t cost a lot and that make the holidays all the more meaningful and personal.

— Get together with friends and family members: As much as possible, share the holidays with friends and family members in person, as well as by phone, e-mail and mail. If you’ve recently suffered the loss of someone close, spend time with friends and family members with whom you can share warm memories.

— Join a social group: Feelings of loneliness and isolation can often be remedied by participating in activities with others. You might consider looking into groups affiliated with your local church, museum, library or community center.

— Engage in volunteer activity: Helping others is a pretty foolproof method of making the holidays feel more meaningful. From food banks to senior centers, there are many volunteer organizations that need extra help during this time of year.

— Enjoy activities that are free: Financial strain can be the cause of added holiday stress, so think about driving or walking around to admire holiday decorations, going window shopping, making a snow-person, attending free concerts, etc.

— Don’t abandon healthful habits: Many of the season’s parties and social gatherings include alcohol, but be aware that excessive drinking will only contribute to or increase feelings of overwhelm or depression. Alcohol is not an antidepressant and, in fact, often worsens mood.

— Make the time to get physical exercise: Exercising, such as aerobics, walking, skiing, hiking, yoga or swimming, can help burn away a lot of stress as well as the extra calories of holiday meals.

— Remember that life brings changes: As families change and grow, traditions often need to adapt to the new configurations. While you can hold on to certain family rituals, understand that each holiday season is different and can be enjoyed in its own way. n

Judy Morrissey is the behavioral health services director for Mazzoni Center, the region’s only LGBT-specific health center.