The holidays mean large extended family gatherings, hours of cooking and a group of people who don’t typically interact in person, all confined to one location and trying to act festive. It’s the reality show version of your family.
When you return from your holiday visit, you may be exhausted for days afterward, finding it hard to focus and return to your regular routine. It feels as if you took the red-eye from Phoenix, but in reality it was a quick one-hour flight from Cleveland.
This is family jet lag.
As with traditional jet lag, the problem is the result of a disruption of your normal routine. Family jet lag works both ways, affecting both travelers and those who receive out-of-town relatives. It’s not that you don’t want to see your family, but the fact that you see them in person only once or twice a year means that you have a limited opportunity to discuss difficult issues best dealt with face-to-face.
It’s more than just the tryptophan, two kinds of potatoes and three kinds of pie that wear you out during family celebrations. According to Dr. Adam Fried, a clinical psychologist in Scottsdale, Ariz., the connection between emotional stress and physical exhaustion is not in your head.
“Many times we may not even realize the level of our anxiety — or the resulting consequences, like extreme fatigue — until well after the event has passed,” he explained.
Only adding tension is the fact that for people who have to travel to spend time with their family, this typically means using precious, limited vacation days. Again, it’s not that we don’t want to use our time off to see our family, but given the fact that the trip can be tiring, doing so in lieu of a vacation hits hard.
Dr. Fried said many clients describe their family jet lag and holiday stress as “an overwhelming, pit-of-their stomach sense of dread and avoidance,” and the first step is to identify what, specifically, about the holidays is stressful.
“For some, it’s the pressure — whether consciously or not — felt by many to create what they believe to be the ‘perfect’ holiday experience,” he explained.
Some believe that they have to make every aspect of their family celebrations conform to their preconceived notion of what the “perfect” holiday experience entails, Dr. Fried said.
So how is it possible to not only survive the holidays this year with your family, but enjoy them? Dr. Fried emphasized that different strategies like daily mindfulness and meditation techniques may provide relief for some, while for others, self-talk strategies, exercise or pharmacological interventions may be most effective.
Specifically, he suggested thoughtful planning well before the family gathering, including establishing rules — that you may or may not communicate to your family — of how you will handle potentially anxiety-provoking interactions. It may also help to inform your family that certain topics are absolutely “off-limits” for discussion throughout the trip (see: picks for the incoming cabinet positions, your lack of a spouse and children, whether or not there should be sour cream in mashed potatoes).
Of course, all the thoughtful planning the world will not always cut it.
“Often it’s easiest just to fall into the same patterns of interacting with family, even if these are emotionally destructive,” Dr. Fried said. “Indeed, the hardest part can be establishing — and sticking to — new responses and behaviors.”
And like traditional jet lag, family jet lag can also have a big impact on your sleep, said Dr. Dion Metzger, a psychiatrist and sleep expert based in Atlanta.
“During holiday travel, it is so easy to start sacrificing hours of sleep to get that last-minute packing in, rise before the sun for that 6 a.m. flight or even just to have a late night catching up with loved ones,” Dr. Metzger explained. “Those lost hours of sleep will have our bodies (and minds) running on fumes before dinnertime.”
Disrupted sleep patterns also make us prone to reduce normal activity levels and gain weight, according to Dr. Richard Rose, chief executive of Sommetrics, a company focused on sleep quality.
“Our sense of well-being is diminished,” he said.
The decreased sleep time and quality results in irritability, problems concentrating, anxiety and even sad feelings for some, Dr. Metzger noted. “Holidays are already hectic and can be particularly emotional for some – especially those dealing with loss.”
Despite the festive chaos, there are steps you can take to improve your sleep – and ideally, your overall experience – while you’re traveling to visit family.
The first is not to be afraid to ask for help.
“You have made it to your family’s house for the holiday and they’re so excited to see your kids. Now use that support, hand those kids over and get some more rest,” Dr. Metzger suggested.
Dr. Fried suggested establishing firm departure dates and not being afraid to stay in a hotel if it provides the respite you need.
Dr. Metzger’s final tip is probably the hardest: Learning to say no.
“Only say yes to things that fit into your schedule with the rest you need,” she said. “You can’t do everything.”