You look at the calendar and break out in a sweat. Your sister's birthday is approaching, a cousin's anniversary party is on the horizon , or a holiday dinner is weeks away. Your stomach is in knots just thinking about it. The occasions change but the anxiety remains the same.

The reason so many of us feel stress at the thought of such events? Family gatherings bring people together, but not always by choice.

Less-Stress Family Gathering

The fact is, in too many families, sharing special occasions or holidays can seem like traveling back to a less secure time. Sitting at a parent's table can turn responsible, paycheck-earning, mortgage-paying adults back into needy, self-doubting children.

Don't let old patterns re-emerge

Without realizing it, many of us have expectations that our parents will fulfill certain wishes, says Michael Zentman, a family therapist in Centerport, New York. "These expectations are often based on history rather than current reality."

Another common problem is that family members may impose old roles upon us to satisfy their own needs. You may be a married, 40-year-old mother of two, yet you're forever treated as the baby of the family by your siblings. You may not need an older sister to watch over you anymore but, Miss First Born may still need a kid sister to boss around, Zentman says.

Come holiday time, tensions are often magnified. If a particular holiday was once a source of conflict or frustration--no matter how trivial--expect the negative feelings to re-emerge on schedule.

Add to these circumstances the self-imposed pressure for seasonal correctness, and you've got the makings of a perennial flashpoint, says Debbie Mandel, a stress management expert from Lawrence, New York, and author of Turn On Your Inner Light. "There's pressure to find that perfect gift, to wear that perfect outfit; to make that perfect dinner."

Stay in the Present

So what's the best way to steer clear of confrontation, avoid re-opening old wounds, and deal with family get-togethers on your own terms, rather than those dictated by others?

First, watch out for the recurrence of old family behavior patterns. Don't let yourself get into playing "The way we were." It's not always easy, Zentman concedes, but anticipating the situation can help you to resist it.

Thwart unrealistic expectations you might be harboring of your parents, siblings and other family members. When it comes to Mom and Dad, strive to have adult-to-adult relationships rather than child-to-parent relationships. For many people, the hardest part is coming together as grown-ups. As we get older, "the chronological difference becomes meaningless," Zentman says. "The playing field becomes even with the passage of time."

The best defense

If you come up against a family member who pushes your buttons, "disarm the person who is about to sling the barbs by offering a genuine compliment," recommends Mandel. You can also deflect attention away from you by changing the subject. Look at photographs, tell a joke, or talk about the fascinating book you've just read.

Psych up your body, along with your mind, Mandel adds. "I exercise before a family gathering to help myself get mellow," she says. "Sometimes I do a few yoga postures or deep breathing exercises to let go."

When all is said and done, the experts agree, it's all about your own attitude. "Don't arrive at a holiday gathering with a negative expectation, because you will actualize it," advises Mandel.

And if you're the hostess, she adds, don't feel the need to prove yourself. It's OK to be less than perfect. Allow yourself to relax. Doing so will make it much easier for you to enjoy your family--and yourself.

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