For Mind Body Medicine
at Massachusetts General Hospital

The Turkey at the Table: Tips for Handling Thanksgiving Stress

The Turkey at the Table: Tips for Handling Thanksgiving Stress

We all have an Uncle Paul …he’s that guy at the Thanksgiving table, the one whose political prognostications poison the potatoes and inspire suffering over the stuffing.  He’s loud, he’s brash, he’s opinionated and he makes you want to cower under the table cloth.

Yes, the holidays are the best of times, they are the worst of times.  And in this highly politicized climate, they can inspire no end to anxiety.

If you’re dreading the day, BHI’s Dr. Ellen Slawsby has some sage advice:

“Family dynamics are the number one stress factor for most people during the holidays,” Dr. Slawsby says.  “There are several ways to handle that stress so that you can make the most of your holidays and enjoy them yourself.”

  1. The most important thing is self-care.
    The holidays are a very busy time of year; between parties, cooking, shopping and relatives from far flung places, its especially important to take time for yourself.Be sure to plan your time – fit in your daily exercise, schedule an afternoon break for a cup of tea or a few chapters of your favorite book.“We all feel a sense of obligation to our families, but we have an obligation to take care of ourselves,” Dr. Slawsby says.  “You need to literally make a list of the things that make you happy and schedule time to do them.  Even if it’s just for a few minutes, you need to stop, breathe and reflect.”
  2. Brainstorm your responses in advance
    If you have a relative whose conflicting views on life, politics, fashion, etc… diverge from your own, don’t let yourself be goaded into an argument.  Think of what the conversational minefields may be and come up with some neutral comments that everyone can agree on.“If you have a toxic relative and you’re dreading seeing them, think in advance about what you have in common. Think of strategies for steering the conversation away from what might be divisive,” Dr. Slawsby said. “Think of a good memory that knits you all together and say to Uncle Paul, ‘remember that time I got lost at the amusement park you and found me and saved me?’”
  3. Have an exit strategy
    If things tend to devolve over dessert, clear the table.  Go to the restroom.  Pop into the den and watch the football game if the gang in the living room is getting catty.  Take time for a mini meditation.Remember that you don’t have to commit for a full day – maybe you just come for dessert.  Perhaps you tell everyone you have to leave by 4 o’clock.“It’s healthy to set boundaries – decide how much time and energy you want to expend.  This is your family and you love them, but if the conversation is taking a toll on your emotions, you need to limit your exposure,” Dr. Slawsby said.
  4. Host planning
    If you’re hosting the event and you want to avoid volatility, there are some easy things you can do to help set the right mood:
  • Create a soothing playlist
  • Dim the lights to set the mood
  • Set place cards at the table to ensure conflicting parties aren’t seated side by side
  • Create distinct conversational settings – place hors d’eouvres in different rooms so people of like minds can naturally congregate together
  • Organize post-turkey walks around the neighborhood


“We all feel varying levels of stress about the holiday, but I really try to focus on what we have in common,” Dr. Slawsby said.  “The holidays are about gratitude, sharing and giving.  And if we think carefully about our interactions and take care of ourselves, there’s no reason the holidays can’t be joyful.”