Making it Through Family Vacations (When Struggling With Your Mental Health)

It’s summer time, and that means family vacations. My husband and I just got home from back-to-back family trips—one with my family to Ft. Robinson, Nebraska, then with his family to Yellowstone and Tetons National Parks. Nebraska surprised me: Ft. Robinson was beautiful, and there were lots of options for fun activities for everyone. I expected our second trip (to Yellowstone and the Tetons) to be beautiful—and it was. What surprised me was that my favorite part was just spending time with my husband’s family. We don’t live close, and I feel like I’m still getting to know everyone. I really appreciated spending time together.

When we made it to Ft. Robinson, Nebraska

I do really appreciate these trips, and I want to spend time building relationships with family. At the same time, these get-togethers can sometimes be challenging mood-wise. For me, it’s things like lots of time around a lot of people (which, after a while, gets overwhelming), or not always having control over my schedule that can sometimes lead to me feeling pretty low. Over the last few years, though, I’ve found some things that help. I hope sharing some of them might be helpful to you, too.

1. Figure out what exactly stresses you out

The first step for enjoying family vacations more was figuring out what, exactly, tends to stress me out. After that, I could come up with ideas for what might help, and then test them out to see what works. I’m guessing, if you’re reading this article, that you might sometimes struggle with this type of event, too. If that’s the case, before doing anything else, take a minute to think about what makes them hard for you—then you can start problem-solving.

2. “Cope ahead”

Driving through Somewhere, Wyoming

I never found therapy particularly helpful until I found dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT. Someday I’ll sit down and write more about it; for now, I’ll just say that part of it is learning some specific skills for dealing with strong emotions. One of these is the idea of coping ahead. Basically, it’s thinking ahead about what might be challenging mood-wise, then coming up with a plan of attack.

For me, coping ahead for the family vacations included thinking about some ways to engage with my two teenage stepdaughters. I don’t feel super comfortable as a stepmom. I find that when I try to engage and build a relationship with these two ladies, that naturally comes with some hopes and expectations. And when one of those expectations inevitably gets broken, I start feeling offended pretty easily…which then makes it that much harder to try to engage again. I’m trying to practice not having expectations, and trying to balance that with still engaging whenever we’re together.

When me and my sisters were little, my mom used to wrap up prizes and games for us when we took road trips. She’d make a schedule of what we could open at what mile marker. I loved these as a kid. So last Thanksgiving when my husband and stepdaughters and I drove to Denver, I tried coming up with some little games and activities for every 100 miles, and even bought some prizes to go with. It went over fairly well, so doing it again was part of my cope-ahead plan for thinking through how to make the most of our Nebraska trip. It didn’t go perfectly, and they had lost some interest by the end of the trip back, but we did get some engaged time where everyone was talking (and off their phones!) during the drive. I’ll take what I can get!

Coping ahead for the trips also included some of the other ideas listed here.

3. Pack workout clothes, and find ways to get moving

I haven’t been as consistent with it the last couple of months, but when I do it, exercise inevitably makes me feel better mentally and mood-wise. A few years ago, I started the habit of including workout clothes when I’m packing for trips, especially family get-togethers. This summer, I didn’t use them. In Nebraska, though, I did find time to go on a couple long walks.

Out on an evening walk

I recently started an Instagram account in conjunction with this blog, and I’ve been trying to post daily with something that made me feel happy. I was surprised when I started to see a pattern in what makes me feel good: Spending time outside and working out both do it pretty consistently. I thought about this on the Nebraska trip, and even though I didn’t do a formal workout while I was there, taking some walks and enjoying the sunshine and scenery really did provide a mood-boost.

4. Take a break

This is a pretty simple one, but it took help from my therapist to figure it out. When I get overwhelmed by the number of people, or the noise, or the commotion (etc.) on this kind of trip, it can do a lot to step away for a little bit and get some alone time. Part of what has made this effective is letting family know ahead of time that sometimes I might step away for a moment when I need to reset, with a polite request not to bother me if or when I do, which goes with the next topic.


5. Communicate

To be perfectly honest, I’ve had some rough moments this summer—that isn’t exactly a new thing. Something I have only started to figure out this summer, though, is how much I can rely on my family when that happens. I’ve gone to them a couple of times recently when they’ve really come through, helping with de-escalation and problem-solving. There have also just been some moments when just plain talking about how I’m feeling has made me feel a whole lot better. These trips are about family and relationships anyway, right?

6. Go all in

Like I already mentioned, getting a little alone time has been helpful for family vacations. While we were in Nebraska, though, there was a point where I looked around and realized I had gotten alone time, but I hadn’t gotten a lot of family time in. I decided I also needed to focus on that.

This idea also comes from DBT: The idea of going all-in. Of just focusing on the moment. Of observing what’s going on around you, of trying to participate, and—maybe most importantly—just focusing on what’s happening, not on anxieties or a current mood that doesn’t feel great. Unfortunately, sometimes with something like depression, there just plain isn’t a way to feel dramatically better all of a sudden. But that doesn’t have to stop you from still getting some pleasure out of the moment. Just like taking breaks is important, so is just jumping in and going for it.

7. Savor the happy moments when they come

This final one is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about since I started trying to consistently meditate and practice mindfulness. A lot of mindfulness is about trying to be present in the moment—this is something that, again, is a big component of DBT, too. This comes with the idea that you can’t always change things about the present, but accepting that fact—and accepting the present—can at least help reduce suffering in the present.

The stop on the lunch cruise in the Tetons

If being present is about accepting what’s unpleasant, though, then it’s also about accepting the opposite. Lately, I’ve been trying to really notice moments of joy. I try to observe them. I try to focus on that feeling (not on other worries or troubles). I try to savor the moment and enjoy it. This comes with the realization, of course, that it won’t last forever. So how about enjoying it while it does? I’ve also been realizing that, even though there are definitely times when I’m pretty sure one of those moments will never happen again, they do. They always do.

Savoring the happy moments when they come, along with the other ideas here, helped me enjoy these family trips this summer. I hope they help you, too.

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