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Why you ‘regress’ when you go home for the holidays — and how to avoid it

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When Gloria Chavez was planning on going home for the holidays for the first time since moving out as an 18-year-old, she found herself anxious at the thought of sitting in her childhood home’s living room, surrounded by family members she hadn’t seen in a while.

Once there, Chavez, who was 20 at the time, felt as if she had traveled back in time — responding defensively to unseemly comments and even getting emotional, as she would when she was a teenager.

“I don’t see my family members quite often, so, you know, around the holidays is when I see everyone,” Chavez said. “It feels like all of the hard work and all of the years of going to therapy and things like that is gone. I let 15-year-old me take control of everything when I’m around certain people that kind of retrigger those emotions.”

For many people, “hometown anxiety” is a common occurrence for those who need to return home for the holidays. On top of making travel arrangements, packing and finding a house sitter, heading back to your hometown for the holidays also means mentally preparing to see those friends and family members you haven’t seen in a while.

It could be the unsettling thought of running into someone you knew from high school, or the idea of your parents lapsing into treating you like a little kid again — or counting on certain family members to make the inappropriate comments on your weight, relationship status or career.

What is ‘holiday regression’?

When going home for the holidays means putting yourself in your childhood home surrounded by the people you grew up with, falling back on old behaviors is a common experience and even has a name — holiday regression.

Often, people affected by the phenomenon don’t realize it in the moment, said clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone, the director of research and education at The Glendon Association, a nonprofit that focuses on mental health advocacy in Santa Barbara, California. The feelings arise from implicit memories — memories that exist in our subconscious — and cause us to act out in the same way we used to when growing up in that space.

“We may have shifted in our adult life, because we have new relationships and a new sense of ourselves,” Firestone said, “but going back for the holidays, being with your parents and sleeping in your old room, that’s what’s going to trigger you and bring back all those old feelings. Not on a conscious level, but it can definitely put you in that frame of mind, and it can put your parents in that frame of mind, too.”

In therapy settings, family units are often referred to as “systems.” From the moment most people are born, they are put into a system between themselves and their parents or guardians — and if they have a sibling, that is another system between siblings. No matter how old the person gets, they will always be the child in their parent’s system, said Stephen Graves, a licensed mental health counselor and the program manager at Loma Linda University’s Health Behavioral Medicine Center in Redlands, California.

Certain dynamics are ingrained in families from birth, Graves said. If you are the oldest sibling and were usually the one to make decisions, that will likely still be the case when you’re with your siblings now. The youngest sibling will still get treated like the youngest sibling by their parents, no matter how old they actually are. Graves is in his late 50s, but when he returns home for the holidays, his older relatives still refer to him by his childhood nickname, “Stevie.”

“If you have been in this dance with your parents or your family, where you’ve done the tango since you’re 4 years old, and you’ve done the tango with your family for 40 years, and you say, ‘I’m not going to do that anymore,’ it’s easy to say that, but part of the system wants to be in homeostasis,” Graves said. “It seeks to pull members that aren’t doing the same dance back into that old dance.”

How to cope when unwanted feelings start to arise

The anxiety you feel when planning on going back into a stressful environment is often unavoidable, said Debbie Missud, a licensed mental health counselor and psychotherapist who specializes in relationships, anxiety and depression. But there are ways to cope.

Missud recommends planning for the situations that might come up — if a conversation starts to turn toward unwanted subjects, have a response ready that you prepared beforehand.

“Remind yourself that you don’t have to stay in situations that negatively impact your mental health, and you don’t need to have conversations that you don’t want to have,” Missud said.

Falling back into old patterns often happens without us being aware, but you can remind yourself to take breaks periodically to reflect on your mental state, such as going for a walk, going to the bathroom or relocating to a different room away from the crowd, Firestone said.

Sometimes, finding a family member you feel most comfortable around, or a space in the house you feel most content in, can help with the unease, Missud said.

Now, when Chavez — who is 25 and runs a TikTok account that provides mental health tips for her followers — goes home for the holidays, she reminds herself not to react to inappropriate comments that she had already predicted might happen.

“I remind myself who I am and what I stand for. Those comments and those jokes are not who I am, and I’m just going to pass them because it’s not worth it to always react with anger,” Chavez said. “Also, it’s temporary, and I’ll be right back home as quickly as I got there.”

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