It’s no secret that the hustle and bustle of the holidays can be stressful. But getting to know friends and family requires a lot of talking, and some topics can cause more anxiety than others.
A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll of more than 1,500 people found that while there are some topics like family updates and sports that people look forward to talking about, others are stressful. Overall, most survey respondents said politics was the No. 1 most uncomfortable topic of conversation, but there was a gender breakdown.
More than 40% of women felt uncomfortable talking about politics, compared to just 27% of men. Finances were the second most worrisome topic of conversation, followed by current events. Overall, women were more likely than men to say that the most common topics bothered them, with the exception of community gossip; only 10% of women and men said it was stressful.
But why do certain topics stress people out, and how can you navigate them this season? Experts break it down.
Why can certain topics cause anxiety during the holidays?
A lot depends on who you talk to, says psychologist Thea Gallagher, clinical associate professor at NYU Langone Health and co-author. Mind in sight podcast, reports Yahoo Life. “We don’t choose our family, and we can have friends who are more in line with our beliefs,” she says. “The variability in family-related beliefs is much greater, along with age and stage. Some of those hot topics might be more charged.”
Women may feel more anxious about certain conversations because they tend to be more stressed during the holidays in general, Hilary Ammon, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety and Women’s Emotional Health, tells Yahoo Life. (In the survey, 43% of women said they felt stressed during the holiday season, compared to just 32% of men.)
“Although it’s not always the case, female colleagues tend to take on these additional vacation stressors,” says Ammon. “In addition to the real tasks that need to be done, such as shopping for Christmas presents or packing a diaper bag for a trip, female colleagues tend to have a greater mental workload during the holiday season.”
Family members may also have perceptions of you that may not reflect who you currently are, and that can come up in conversation, Gallagher says. “During your life, you change into different versions of yourself,” he says. “Sometimes the version they know of you may not be who you feel you are today.
Alcohol can also make conversations more intense than they would otherwise be, he says.
How to navigate stressful conversations around the holidays
If you’re planning to get together with loved ones, Gallagher says potentially awkward conversations will happen, and it’s important to be prepared. Etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore tells Yahoo Life that keeping this tip in mind can help:
Listen with an open mind. “Often, holiday conversations become stressful because of misunderstandings or differing points of view,” says Whitmore. “Exercising active listening and empathy can help you recognize others’ points of view without agreeing with them.” This approach can ease tensions and create a more understanding environment.
Set boundaries. Whitmore recommends knowing your limits. “If the topic seems too personal or sensitive, it’s perfectly acceptable to set boundaries,” she says. “You can prevent conversations from becoming a source of anxiety by politely but firmly stating that you are not comfortable discussing certain topics.”
Change the subject. If you know family members are likely to bring up conversations that make you uncomfortable, Whitmore suggests having “neutral” conversation topics ready. “If the discussion veers into awkward territory, steer it toward something more general, like the latest movie, concert, sporting event, or shared hobby,” she says. Talking about positive shared family memories or loved ones who have died can also be helpful.
If the conversation makes you feel uncomfortable, Whitmore says it’s important to respond in a way that respects your feelings and the feelings of the person you’re talking to. “I’m not comfortable discussing this topic, can we talk about something else?” or “We obviously have different views on this, so I’d like to discuss something lighter,” advises Whitmore. “These responses acknowledge your concern without being confrontational.”
Whitmore recommends doing your best to avoid being dismissive or aggressive in your response, even if you feel you’ve been provoked. “Statements like, ‘That’s silly to worry about,’ or ‘You’re overreacting,’ can escalate the situation,” she says. “It’s also wise to steer clear of controversial topics such as politics, hot current events, or religion unless you’re sure the conversation will be respectful.”
How to remove yourself from an awkward holiday conversation
Sure, you can do everything right during a holiday conversation and still feel anxious. If you feel you need to remove yourself from the conversation, experts suggest doing the following:
Gently excuse yourself. Whitmore offers several different phrases, including, “Please forgive me. I have to make (or receive) a phone call, “Is it me or is someone else getting hot? I’m going to get some fresh air, or “[Insert family member name here]Do you need help in the kitchen?
Take a time out. “Disconnect from the conversation and go outside or go into another room to collect your thoughts and relax,” says Whitmore.
Rope in a loved one for help. “If possible, encourage a family member or friend to step in and help steer the conversation onto more neutral ground,” says Whitmore.
Talk to a support person about it. “During the holidays, it can be helpful to have an emotional support person,” says Ammon, noting that it could be a spouse, sibling or other supportive loved one. “If you’re feeling overwhelmed at a holiday event, take some space in the bedroom or outside. Share what you’re thinking and feeling with your support person.”
If you’re already stressed about the upcoming holiday conversation, Ammon recommends reminding yourself that this anxiety is temporary. However, if you feel that your stress over the conversations you may have this holiday season is interfering with your daily life, she recommends seeking out a mental health therapist. “Through therapy, you can learn how to better communicate needs, set boundaries, cope with emotions, or explore organizational skills,” she says.
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