It’s no secret that the hustle and bustle surrounding the holidays can be stressful. But catching up with friends and family involves a lot of conversation—and some topics can cause more anxiety than others.
A new Yahoo News/YouGov survey 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 participants said politics was the No.1 most uncomfortable topic of conversation, but there was a gender divide.
More than 40% of women find talking about politics uncomfortable, compared to only 27% of men. Finances were the second most anxiety-inducing topic of conversation, followed by current events. In general, women were more likely than men to say that the most common topics made them anxious, with the exception of community gossip – only 10% of women and men said it was stressful.
But why do certain topics make people stressed, and how can you navigate this season? The experts cleared it.
Why can certain topics cause anxiety during the holidays?
A lot depends on who you’re talking to, psychologist Thea Gallagher, associate clinical professor at NYU Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in sight podcast, says Yahoo Life. “We don’t choose our family, and we may have friends who align more with our beliefs,” he says. “There is much more variability in beliefs with the family, with age and stages. Some of those hot button topics can be more charged.”
Women may feel more anxious around certain conversations because they tend to feel more stressed in general around the holidays, Hillary Ammon, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Women’s Anxiety and Emotional Well-being, tells Yahoo Life. (In the survey, 43% of women said they felt stressed during the holiday season, compared to only 32% of men).
“While this is not always the case, female partners tend to take the brunt of these additional holiday stressors,” says Ammon. “In addition to the actual tasks that need to be completed, such as shopping for Christmas presents or packing the diaper bag for a trip, female partners typically have a higher mental load during the holiday season “.
Family members may also have perceptions of you that may not reflect who you currently are, and that may come up in conversation, says Gallagher. “Throughout your life, you change into different versions of yourself,” he says. “Sometimes, the version you know of yourself may not be who you feel you are today. Your role may be ‘stuck’, and this may be triggering.”
Alcohol can also make conversations more intense than they would be otherwise, he says.
How to navigate stressful conversations around the holidays
If you’re planning to reunite with loved ones, Gallagher says potentially uncomfortable conversations will happen — and it’s important to be prepared. Etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore tells Yahoo Life that keeping this advice in mind can help:
Listen with an open mind. “Often, holiday conversations become stressful because of misunderstandings or different points of view,” says Whitmore. “Practicing active listening and showing empathy can help you recognize other people’s perspectives without necessarily agreeing with them.” This approach can de-escalate tension and create a more understanding environment.
Set boundaries. Whitmore advises knowing your limits. “If a topic feels too personal or sensitive, it’s perfectly acceptable to set boundaries,” he says. “You can prevent conversations from becoming sources 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 some “neutral” conversation topics ready to go. “If the discussion veers into uncomfortable territory, steer it towards something more general, such as a recent movie, concert, sporting event or shared hobby,” she says. Talking about shared positive family memories or deceased loved ones can also be helpful.
If a conversation makes you feel uneasy, Whitmore says it’s important to respond in a way that respects your feelings and those of the person you’re talking to. “Phrases like “I’m not comfortable discussing this topic; can we talk about something else?” or “We clearly have different perspectives on this, so I’d like to discuss something lighter” can be effective,” advises Whitmore. “These answers acknowledge your discomfort without being confrontational.”
Whitmore recommends doing your best to avoid being rude or aggressive in your response, even if you feel you’ve been provoked. “Phrases like ‘It’s a silly thing to worry about’ or ‘You’re overreacting’ can make the situation worse,” he says. “It is also wise to stay away from controversial topics such as politics, current events or religion, unless you are sure that the conversation will remain respectful.”
How to remove yourself from an awkward holiday conversation
Of course, you can do everything right in a holiday conversation and still feel anxious. If you feel you need to remove yourself from the conversation, experts suggest doing the following:
Excuse me graciously. Whitmore suggests a few different phrases, including, “Please excuse me. I need to make (or take) a phone call,” “Is it me or 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. “Disengage from the conversation and go outside or into another room to collect your thoughts and calm down,” 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 to more neutral ground,” says Whitmore.
Talk to a support person. “It can be helpful to have an emotional support person during the holidays,” says Ammon, noting that this could be a supportive spouse, sibling or loved one. “If you feel overwhelmed at a holiday event, take some space, in a room or outside. Share what you think and feel with your support person.”
If you’re already feeling stressed about the upcoming holiday conversations, Ammon recommends reminding yourself that this anxiety is temporary. However, if you feel that your stress around the conversations you may have this holiday season is interfering with your day-to-day life, she recommends seeking out a mental health therapist. “Through therapy, you may be able to learn how to better communicate needs, set boundaries, cope with emotions or discover organizational skills,” he says.
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