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Psychologist Provides Tips for the Holidays and Family Gatherings: Fixed Rituals Prevent Stress

“‘Tis the season to be cranky”: For many people, Easter, Pentecost, Christmas, and family gatherings mean stress and conflict. But a psychologist at the University of Freiburg recommends for us to keep our cool: The stress we deal with during the holiday season should not be taken too seriously.


Fotolia_26315011_S_© Jeanette Dietl - Fotolia.jpg

 (©Jeanette Dietl - )


 For many people, the stress already starts mounting in the days before the holiday season. In addition to the strains of work, Christmas shopping, and preparations, many adults put themselves under great pressure to organize a perfect family celebration. The highest goal is to create a sense of harmony. But this pursuit of the perfect, harmonious family gathering over the holidays is too much of a burden for many of us, says Dr. Helmut Wetzel, psychologist at the University of Freiburg.


  • Simple Trick: Distribute Tasks

Our nerves finally reach the boiling point when the whole family gets together on the holidays, and arguments within the family are liable to spark up at any time. Wetzel recommends a simple trick to help prevent this from happening: Preparations for the celebration should not be made by the entire family together. The larger the group is, the more stressful things can get. It is often more pleasant to break up into small groups responsible for specific tasks and also to set aside some time to be alone for awhile.


  • Fixed Rituals for Young Couples

The psychologist emphasizes that it’s particularly important to maintain fixed rituals—especially for young couples spending the holidays together for the first time. Taking walks, singing or reading out loud on Christmas, and meeting for a holiday feast might seem like rather traditional rituals, but they are very effective for countering stress because they allow everyone to kick back and relax.

  • Don’t Overestimate Holiday Stress

If it’s still too much, Dr. Wetzel recommends simply leaving the room for a bit: “As soon as you start to feel stress welling up, pause for couple of seconds and ask yourself how you typically counter stress in an everyday situation. And then do just that.” Holiday stress is nothing other than normal stress that you can reduce without allowing it to lead to serious conflicts. “One shouldn’t take stress during the holidays more seriously than stress in daily life,” the expert recommends. People tend to overestimate stress on special occasions because they are more sensitive to it and are especially determined to not allow themselves to get stressed out or get into conflicts.


  • Arguments on Holidays are More Easily Forgiven

And if your family does get into an argument over the holidays despite all of your efforts to avoid one—a common occurrence even on Christmas—Dr. Wetzel has reassuring words for you: “People are willing to bury the hatchet more quickly on Christmas and arguments are more easily forgotten.” After all, the most important goal for everyone during the holiday season is, as Dr. Wetzel reminds us, harmony and joy, complemented by a good portion of equanimity and understanding for the idiosyncrasies of others.



Portrait of the researcher

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Dr. phil. Dipl.-Psych. Helmut Wetzel

Helmut Wetzel has served as director of the outpatient clinic of the Institute of Psychology of the University of Freiburg since 1994. His work encompasses child, youth, and family therapy. He is also responsible for coordinating core training programs on educational counseling and family therapy at the institute. He concentrates particularly on work in and with families in crises and emergencies, the transgenerational propagation of violence and addiction pattern


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