Help! How to lower Thanksgiving stress

Posted at 3:47 PM, Nov 24, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-24 15:47:35-05

Writing a story about Thanksgiving stress is ironic, because I don’t personally feel stressed at all as the holiday fast approaches. I keep waiting for the stress to hit me like a sledgehammer, especially since we are hosting for the first time in more than five years and my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law, whom I adore, keep asking if I’m sure I really want to host.

“Are they trying to tell me something?” I wonder to myself.

The stress will undoubtedly kick in when I start cooking turkey for only the second time in my life, along with stuffing and side dishes I’m still Googling how to make. Add in an exhausted husband and children hoping for pie before dinner — and the pressure that Thanksgiving is my family’s favorite holiday of the year — and the anxiety begins to climb.

So, what to do when you feel the stress level starting to rise? Reach out to others and ask them how they cope this time of the year.

The unconventional approach

Pam Rak, a married professional in Pittsburgh who is cooking for 22 family members, said the stress starts long before “the pots and pans will come out” because in her family, the first challenge is finding a day to celebrate that works for everyone.

“No, we don’t celebrate on Thanksgiving Day. Why, you ask?” wrote Rak, president of a national marketing firm, in an email. “IN-LAWS! Everyone has two places to go on Thanksgiving Day, which makes all of the hard work associated with cleaning your house, cooking dinner, setting the tables go to complete waste if people rush in and have to leave to go to another dinner on the same day.”

After having learned the hard way, she said she and her family now have their big Thanksgiving feast the day before Thanksgiving. “It may be a bit unconventional but it works for us (after years of aggravating scheduling conflicts!)” she said. She still needs to cook for 22 and have the meal ready a day before most of us. How does she manage? “Cooking with lots of wine! Thankfully,” she said.

School psychologist Louise Sattler, a mom of two grown children, is planning a Thanksgiving night out. Her daughter’s boyfriend is a chef and so instead of “slaving over a hot stove,” they’ll be going to the restaurant where he works. “Did I mention it is a kosher fusion restaurant! Nothing says Thanksgiving more than that — huh!” wrote Sattler, co-founder of 411 Voices, a collective of professionals with social media expertise.

Ellen Williams, co-founder of Sisterhood of the Sensible Moms, has done something she hasn’t quite had the courage to do before. “In a bold move, I waved the white flag and sent out a very direct email saying I was too overwhelmed to host Thanksgiving this year,” she wrote. “I have never, ever let myself admit that I could not handle something before in my life but you know what? It feels good. I’m just bringing the pies to my in-laws.”

A ‘plan of attack’

Jennifer Bosse, a mom of two, ages 3 and 4½, and founder of the blog Tales of a Southern Sweetheart, has been hosting Thanksgiving for nine years and expects 15 people this year, her biggest crowd yet. (She usually has about five guests!) “Thankfully, my stress levels decrease with added wisdom from each experience,” she wrote.

She used to make everything the day of Thanksgiving, which meant she was in the kitchen from 6 a.m. until the guests sat down to eat. “And by the time everything was prepared and set out, I was too exhausted from making it all to partake!”

Now, she splits the work up, so the dessert and a few sides are made the day before and the high priority items are made the day of. “That helps so much!” she said.

Jessica McFadden, a mom of three and founder of the blog A Parent in Silver Spring, also always hosts Thanksgiving. Years ago, to lower the stress, she came up with her own “plan of attack,” which included buying “cooking Crocs” so she could stand up for hours in her tiled kitchen without any soreness and writing a “to do” list for each day leading up to the big celebration.

“The week before I order my turkey and pies from a local farm (hey, they’re home baked — just not by me!)” she wrote. Monday, she shops; Tuesday, she starts cooking the easy sides; Wednesday more sides and picking up the turkey and pies; and Thursday, she puts the kids to work setting the table.

“When people arrive, I totally give them jobs and don’t act the martyr. That makes everyone happy and part of the process,” said McFadden, who also started the site A Parent in America. “The most important things to do, I think, for a stress-free Thanksgiving are to pray, eat and love what you did … and let someone else clean up.”

Avital Norman Nathman, a mom of one and editor of the motherhood anthology “The Good Mother Myth,” agreed that sharing the load is key, so her 9-year-old son will be making an appetizer and a dessert, her parents will bring side dishes and her husband will clean the house.

“As someone with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, ‘stressed’ is my default setting,” she said. “One thing I’ve learned through daily life is that it’s OK to delegate tasks when you just don’t have enough spoons to take on everything. The same holds true for Thanksgiving.”

‘This is baad t-o-r-w-k-e-y’

There is nothing like stressful Thanksgivings of the past to keep the stress of the holiday in check. One such Thanksgiving has now become “family lore” for Cherylyn Harley LeBon, a mom of two, and her family.

After giving birth through a difficult cesarean section in late summer years ago, she and her family ordered dinner for Thanksgiving, because they were “too exhausted to do anything more,” the lawyer, strategist and writer said via email.

However, instead of turkey, the store gave them uncooked chicken, which they didn’t realize until the store had closed. Since they don’t eat chicken, they scrambled around to find something else in the freezer and found a frozen salmon dish, which they tried to pass off as turkey to their then 3-year-old daughter.

“We sat down to eat and our daughter took one bite of her salmon (faux turkey), stood up on her … chair, pointed at the food, and shouted, ‘This is baad t-o-r-w-k-e-y,’ ” she wrote.

“You can’t put anything over on kids, especially when it comes to turkey,” she joked. “No turkey that year, but a lot of laughing.”

Nationally syndicated columnist Tracy Beckerman, author of “Lost in Suburbia: A Momoir. How I Got Pregnant, Lost Myself and Got My Cool Back in the New Jersey Suburbs,” has her own story. For her family, “nothing says Thanksgiving like having someone choke on a piece of Thanksgiving turkey,” she wrote.

She was about 11 years old when she remembers her grandmother gasping for air. Without missing a beat, she said her mother wrapped her arms around her grandmother and performed the Heimlich maneuver.

“The piece of turkey shot out of my grandmother’s mouth, flew across the room at the speed of sound, and then hit the wall with a thud, where it stayed for the rest of the meal,” she said. “Once the family was assured that Grandma was OK, we all continued eating our Thanksgiving dinner, hardly mindful of the congealed turkey on the dining room wall.”

Thanksgiving isn’t stressful but profitable for Kitty Bradshaw, founder of an online destination covering lifestyle in Los Angeles and New York. Because her birthday occurs the week of Thanksgiving, she tries to use it as an opportunity to “extort money from family members who failed to remember” her special day.

“Of course, everyone knows this and considers my annual pity party as family tradition,” she wrote. And when she is not “collecting birthday hush money,” she takes on “Thanksgiving bartender to lighten the mood and relieve the stress.”

Reality puts stress in perspective

There is nothing that really puts all the stress, worry and anxiety over Thanksgiving in perspective like tragic events of our world, such as the Paris attacks.

“Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because I feel that even for a brief moment, every American gets real about getting grateful,” said Amy Jordan, a mother of two and creator of WundaBar Pilates. “There’s power behind stopping to recognize who is important and a blessing to you in life. It takes away the power of stress by focusing on the truth of what counts.”

Bosse, the mom of two and host of Tales of a Southern Sweetheart, agreed. “We are very fortunate to be able to sit down to a nice meal together surrounded by safety and comfort. Not all can say that. If anything, it makes you feel more thankful.”

Perhaps that’s part of the reason why I can’t seem to get too stressed this year even as we’re hosting. No matter how the turkey, stuffing and sides turn out, I’ll just feel blessed and comforted by the love I’ll see around that table during these truly anxious times.

Editor’s note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life.