D Gregory Smith

8 Tips for LGBT People to Lower Holiday Stress

Filed By D Gregory Smith | December 22, 2009 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: anxiety disorder, coping skills, gay Christmas, LGBT Christmas stress, LGBT families, LGBT Holiday Stress, mental health, Stress

Feeling stressed and/or depressed lately? You're not alone. The holiday season is reported to be "problematic" for about forty-five percent of the general population, and there may be added concerns for LGBTIQ persons.

bipolar artwork_web.jpgThere is often so much pressure to be joyous and to share "the most wonderful time of the year". It can be especially hard for those of us who feel wounded by the various ghosts of Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa past. Family and work dynamics can be hard at the best of times, during the holiday season it can reach a torturous crescendo:

  • "I can't stand so-and-so, and they're going to be at Grandma's for dinner."
  • "I do not want to go to midnight mass with the family, but I'm more upset by the thought of dealing with the fallout of not going."
  • "I just know that Bible-thumper at work thinks I'm going to hell. The office party is always a nightmare."
  • "I'm going to have to fend off all the questions of why I'm not married."
  • "If they knew the truth, I'd be fired (disowned, disgraced, etc.)."
  • "I don't have enough money for gifts. Shopping is so much pressure. I feel inadequate compared to...."
  • "I'm bringing my partner, and this is the first time. I'm worried that they'll say or do hurtful things."

Yep. All familiar. But there are some things to keep in mind when dealing with the stresses of the holiday season...

Remember, you're not alone. "Forced fun" with co-workers, family and extended circles of families and friends happens to everybody. Many people, straight, gay and otherwise feel that they aren't part of the celebration because they don't feel particularly festive or "in the Christmas spirit". The pressure to have fun, be nice and ignore grudges and difficulties can result in the completely opposite effect. Not out to family, co-workers or friends? This can dramatically increase holiday stress. Maintaining a front and keeping secrets is hard.

Mostly, our day-to-day lives are lived with people who care for and support us emotionally. We've created our own families. We've created routines that encourage and nurture us. We've developed our own beliefs. The holidays can totally upset that. Even the mentally healthiest among us can be challenged by relatives and parents, regardless of acceptance or support. Ram Dass once said, "If you think you're enlightened, go spend a week with your parents."

And even if we are out, during the holidays we're often surrounded by people who may be biologically related or who share the same work, but who do not support us, or who are even openly hostile. Whether this is true or simply a suspicion or feeling, it still causes anxiety, which causes increased stress levels which often leads to some very depressing thoughts. A very slippery slope mentally....

What to do? If your particular situation seems to be causing problematic stress or depression, please seek out professional help. But for those relatively-minor-once-a-year issues, below are a few suggestions I have found helpful:

  • Be aware of your anxiety. Notice when your tension levels are rising, and let yourself feel them. Feelings never hurt anybody- the actions resulting from those feelings are the real kicker, and quite often those actions happen because feelings are so bottled up that the pressure forces an explosion. Often, simply noticing and naming the anxiety can calm it.
  • Breathe. Under stress, the breath is often shallow, keeping oxygen levels at a minimum which just adds more stress. As simple as it sounds, three deep, conscious breaths can bring instant relief, slowing the heart rate, reducing hypertension- and anxiety levels.
  • "Is that true?" Most of my worst fears are never realized, and that question has been a lifesaver in many situations. My brain can run amok with fantasies of what people will say or do in response to me- things that I can't possibly know for certain. Anxiety levels rise in the face of uncertainty. This simple question slows my thoughts and brings me back to the facts.
  • Be here now. Most stress involves either the past or the future- both are perspective distortion agents. Staying in the here and now reduces stress.
  • Resist the urge to self-medicate. Most people eat and drink more and exercise less than they normally would at this time of year. If you're prone to depression already, (and even if you're not) a hangover and love handles won't help. Plus, alcohol, a depressant, may seem to help for a while, but usually worsens depression and stress symptoms later on. It also reduces inhibitions, making hurt feelings, disagreements and fights much more likely.
  • Give yourself an out. If you have to spend an extended amount of time with family, work some down time into the schedule. Removing yourself from the situation can be vital, and it can be done gracefully. "I just need some alone time" is something that almost anyone will respect. There are lots of reasons to be alone- get creative. A short walk, a hot shower, a nap, an AA meeting, or even extended time behind the locked door of a bathroom can do amazing things to renew self-confidence, perspective and energy.
  • Remember, this is temporary. Most of us can survive anything for a few days. If you're in a situation that you feel you may not be able to handle well, by all means, get out! But if staying will do less damage to yourself and others than leaving, remembering the finite nature of the visit may help.
  • Take care of yourself.You know what you need to do to be healthy. Eat well, exercise, hydrate, rest, play and give yourself permission to be human.

No matter what the situation, my greatest stressor is worrying about something I have little or no control over. Recognizing that is key. People are going to think what they think, and my thoughts or actions will probably not change that in the short amount of time I have to spend with them during the holiday season. Whether they approve of me or not is none of my business- my business is to be happy, honest, kind, and healthy- and I can do it. I do it by knowing myself and taking care of myself- even under the pressure of midnight mass.

Please feel free to add your own tips. What works for you?

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My biggest suggestion is live for yourself... screw the guilt that others like to impose on you and learn to say NO!

"Mostly, our day-to-day lives are lived with people who care for and support us emotionally. We've created our own families..."


Greg, I've loved your contributions to Bilerico, and taken as a whole, this is a great piece.

But, opening a prominent paragraph this way strikes me as unhelpful.

I'm conflicted about spitting my personal stuff out, but when my partner Dale died by suicide in early November 2000, he was still pretty closeted, and while he'd read Mel White's Stranger At the Gate, and met Mel briefly, the concepts of "people who care for and support us emotionally" and "We've created our own families" were distant hopes.

I buried him as a nearly invisible second-fiddle to his ex-wife... she was great with me, but his family desperately needed the funeral to play out as if the 22-year marriage was still intact and precious.

When we talk about stress and mental health, I really want us to do so in a fashion that acknowledges and welcomes the most stressed and distressed among us. Those who have not found solid support, much less created their own families yet, need to be recognized.

And thank you for the reminder that there are those among us living with such pain at this time of year and throughout it. Unfortunately, the scope of a column such as this is woefully inadequate at addressing such pain, grief and frustration- I tried more to generalize in order to have some relevance for a greater number of people.
I will continue to keep in mind "the most stressed and distressed among us" and remember that "mostly" is at best an ambiguity and i will work at being more accurate at portraying the entire spectrum of persons in the future.
Thank you, Bose, and I hope you get the support you want/need. If you ever want to visit, I'm open.

I’m so sorry your partner felt compelled to take his own life. I completely agree with your point about actively seeking to make a space for understanding and acceptance in openly gay communities and in forums such as this for those who cannot experience the freedoms some of us have and often take for granted. I hope your response to Gregory’s post will become a healing force for you and others, especially those who do not have the option to bolt from repressive familial expectations, and to live a fulfilling life of their own choosing.

I must say you've put your finger on something that is very troubling to me. For nearly two years I've been involved in a "part-time," and sometimes extremely furtive relationship with a wonderful young man.

He's attractive, bright, and talented in many ways and, as you’ve probably foreseen, completely closeted. His background, which is also very much his foreground, is Pakistani. However, he has spent most of his life surrounded by his quasi-religious immediate family in that peculiar state of affairs known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Recall it’s the place Michael Jackson repaired to when things got particularly heated stateside and, just as he was welcomed with open arms, my friend’s family were collectively learning the words to all of his songs and becoming his biggest fans. It's also the place where horribly brutal punishments have been meted out for homosexual behavior.

So, it’s only now, while doing time at an east coast college and busily playing slacker as he follows a family “approved and paid for” curriculum, has he begun to explore and even enjoy his personal freedom – but only within some highly defined boundaries, as it seems his family suspects something and won't let him out of either sight or earshot for any length of time.

A few of my much older friends say it reminds them of their formerly repressive lifestyle in the Midwest in the early 1950's. They caution that I should try to imagine turning the clock back around fifty years (um, that would be like more than a quarter century before we were born) in order to think realistically about our relationship and to put my all expectations into a more befitting scenario.

Truthfully, I'm frequently upset and frustrated by the slowness with which our relationship is progressing. At times, he seems perfectly resigned to go along with all the expectations that come from a "traditional" family: Get married, settle down (assume the role of heir to a quite successful family enterprise), have 2.5 kids, and if you really insist on going to hell, then do your own thing when, where and with whomever you want as long as no one else will ever find about it – or consequently get yourself executed and, even more horrifying, disgrace the entire family dynasty.

Sometimes I have to take a deep breath, just sit back and let him be himself to whatever degree he is capable, that which his family and friends will allow. But my fear is that he’ll end up either doing exactly what they want, fulfilling their dreams instead of his own or, perhaps as your partner did, suddenly taking his own life, entirely out of the blue – when no one is looking, early in the morning of a beautiful day.

Needless to say, there are no Mel Whites in our lives and, even if there were, what good would it do? So how should I proceed from here? Is there anything you would or could have done differently that might have changed things for the better? I’m feeling the stress of it all, even more so now as the holidays bear down upon us, and as he spends intersession with his family on something of a joyride without me. What advice could you offer to help me understand and make a welcoming place for the possibility of our future lives together, and a wholly newborn way of life?

Hey Flinn...

It's a challenge, eh? It's too easy to assume that well-sealed closets are a thing of the past, when that's simply not true for many.

Anything I could/would have done differently? With Dale, the many positive steps he was taking seemed to be bearing fruit. I was reluctant to consider, though, that the brave face I saw might be a mask. Hindsight being 20/20, I wish I'd checked in with him more about where his head was at... but, I'm also careful to avoid taking responsibility for stuff that was beyond my control.

One of the things Dale and I did, and I highly recommend, was talk about suicide. He'd made a couple of attempts before we'd met, and was getting mental health care. It's important that the discussion be low-key and non-judgmental; you can let your partner know that you're not afraid to hear where he's at, that you're concerned, that he can be open with you without it being a burden on you.

It's worth remembering, too, that folks who are living with a lot of distress, but are otherwise high-functioning and goal-oriented, may take a similar approach to suicide. Dale started researching and preparing more than 2 months before he died. Of course, there are folks at the other end of the spectrum for whom a suicide attempt is more sudden or impulsive, but it's something you can check in with him about -- do you have access to a means of dying?

For me, one of the keys to navigating the holidays is being gentle with myself. It's tempting to think that I should be feeling more cheerful, or be more involved in holiday events, but I'm better off giving myself permission to just feel what I'm feeling, and doing what works for me... minimize the pressure, downplay the expectations game.

It may be helpful to think separately about loving, gentle, caring for him and loving, gentle, caring for yourself. There's only so much you can do for him, but you're 100% in charge of yourself. He's living with plenty of constraints, feeling pressured about his choices, but he is making choices. One of the impacts is that he's not available to you, not able to be there with and for you. So, be generous about doing things that feed your soul.

Anyway... if you want to continue the conversation via email, Flinn, feel free to leave a comment at my blog. Take care!


Thank you for your column; I think it hit the nail on the head concerning the anxiety of the holiday season. I'm especially gratified you included the following as a way to reduce stress/anxiety:

"Resist the urge to self-medicate. Most people eat and drink more and exercise less than they normally would at this time of year. If you're prone to depression already, (and even if you're not) a hangover and love handles won't help. Plus, alcohol, a depressant, may seem to help for a while, but usually worsens depression and stress symptoms later on. It also reduces inhibitions, making hurt feelings, disagreements and fights much more likely."

The reality that alcohol and drug abuse kill has to be continuously repeated in all news media; it's a message the general public doesn't want to hear, doesn't want to think about, and, basically, doesn't want to know - especially during a period of "holiday" time in which, among adults, the entirety of social activity is centered around drinking.

But alcohol and drug abuse kills relationships. They kill social structures. The kill social gatherings. They kill the skills a person needs to deal with reality on reality's terms.

Most of all, they kill people.

For my many individuals as they grow older their
Partner, if they have one, and their friends are their family.