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 certain topics can cause more anxiety than others.
A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll of more than 1,500 people found that while there are some topics, such as family updates and sports, that people look forward to talking about, others are stressful. As a whole, most survey participants said politics was the No.1 most uncomfortable topic of conversation, but there was a gender split.
Over 40% of women found talking about politics uncomfortable, compared with just 27% of men. Finances were the second-most anxiety-provoking topic of conversation, followed by current events. Overall, women were more likely than men to say that the most common topics made them anxious, with the exception of community gossip — just 10% of women and men said that was stress-inducing.
But why do certain topics make people stressed out, and how can you navigate them this season? Experts break it down.
Why can some topics cause anxiety during the holidays?
A lot comes down to who you're talking to, psychologist Thea Gallagher, a clinical associate professor at NYU Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in View podcast, tells Yahoo Life. "We don't choose our family, and we may have friends who align more with our beliefs," she says. "There's a lot more variability in beliefs with family, along with ages 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 Anxiety & Women's Emotional Wellness, tells Yahoo Life. (In the survey, 43% of females said they feel stressed during the holiday season, compared with just 32% of men.)
"While this is not always the case, female partners tend to take on the brunt of these additional holiday stressors," Ammon says. "In additional to 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 can also have perceptions of you that may not reflect who you currently are, and that can come up in conversation, Gallagher says. "During your life, you change into different versions of yourself," she says. "Sometimes the version they know of you might not be who you feel you are today. Your role may have gotten 'stuck,' and that can be triggering."
Alcohol can also make conversations more intense than they would otherwise be, she says.
How to navigate stressful conversations around the holidays
If you're planning to gather with loved ones, Gallagher says that potentially uncomfortable conversations are going to 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 due to misunderstandings or differing viewpoints," Whitmore says. "Practicing active listening and showing empathy can help in acknowledging others' perspectives without necessarily agreeing with them." This approach can de-escalate tension and create a more understanding environment.
Set boundaries. Whitmore recommends knowing your limits. "If a topic feels too personal or sensitive, it's perfectly acceptable to set boundaries," she says. "You can prevent conversations from becoming sources of anxiety by politely, but firmly, stating that you're 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, like a recent movie, concert, sporting event or a shared hobby," she says. Talking about positive shared 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, therefore I’d like to discuss something lighter' can be effective," Whitmore advises. "These responses acknowledge your discomfort without being confrontational."
Whitmore recommends doing your best to avoid being dismissive or aggressive in your response, even if you feel you've been provoked. "Phrases like, 'That's a stupid thing to worry about' or 'You’re overreacting' can escalate the situation," she says. "It's also wise to steer clear of controversial topics like politics, heated current events or religion unless you're sure the conversation will remain respectful."
How to remove yourself from an uncomfortable holiday conversation
Of course, you can do everything right in a holiday conversation and still feel anxious. If you feel that you need to remove yourself from the conversation, experts suggest doing the following:
Excuse yourself gracefully. Whitmore suggests a few different phrases, including, “Please excuse me. I need to make (or take) a phone call,” “Is it me, or is anyone else getting warm? I’m going to get some fresh air,” or “[Insert family member name here], do you need any help in the kitchen?”
Take a time out. "Disengage from the conversation and step outside or into another room to collect your thoughts and calm down," Whitmore says.
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," Whitmore says.
Talk it out with a support person. "It can be helpful to have an emotional support person during the holidays," Ammon says, noting that this could be a spouse, sibling or other supportive loved one. "If you are feeling overwhelmed at a holiday event, take some space, either in a bedroom or outside. Share what you’re thinking and feeling with your support person."
If you're already feeling stressed about 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 communicate needs better, set boundaries, cope with emotions or explore organizational skills," she says.