The holidays are stressful. Schedules and to-do lists are packed, we see people we don’t often see (like your cousin’s father-in-law’s nephew), and there’s pressure to make everything magical for everyone. And while there are plenty of things vying for our mental and emotional attention, toxic thoughts don’t need to be one of them.

What do I mean by “toxic”? These are distorted ways of perceiving reality. Let’s look at some holiday hypotheticals, shall we?

Mind reading: He didn’t say anything about my gift, so he probably hates it.

Fortune telling: Last year, the conversation got a bit tense. Things will probably be worse this year.

All-or-nothing thinking: My Thanksgiving turkey is a little dry (not perfect), so my dinner party has failed.

Labeling: I forgot Grandma’s gift, Im such a spaz. Or, Look at little Charlie crying over ____, he’s so spoiled.

Shoulds/Musts: I must get my Christmas cards early this year. Or, He should watch what he says so I don’t explode on him.

Emotional reasoning: I feel overwhelmed so there must be something wrong with me.

Stopping toxic thoughts in their tracks

For some of us, this kind of toxic self-talk and distorted thinking is so ingrained we can barely recognize it as such. It took me more than a year of learning to spot toxic thoughts with my counselor, and I am still doing the hard work of handling them when they arise.

Times of stress and high expectations can exacerbate this for anyone. When we notice a critical attitude toward ourselves or others, chances are one or more of these distortions is happening. So what do we do?

Here are four ways to stop toxic thoughts in their tracks this holiday season.

1. Recognize the toxic thoughts.

Toxic thoughts and thinking patterns can be insidious. Often, it starts with some kernel of truth that gets distorted and turned into a weapon against ourselves or others. You (or someone else) make a mistake, or something out of anyone’s control goes wrong—then stress distorts the reality of mistake to mortal sin. It sucks all the grace out of the room, when the reality is that grace abounds when stress abounds.

The best time to learn to recognize these thoughts is outside of heated/stressful moments. Think of a time when you became really frustrated with yourself or someone around you. Can you remember the way you talked to yourself? To the person you were upset with?

Some of us use language for ourselves we would chasten our children for (stupid, idiot, failure), or we expect things of ourselves we would recognize as absurd if our friend said it out loud: I should’ve expected there would be bad weather, a traffic jam, my phone battery would die, and my baby would need two changes of clothes instead of one. In other words, I should’ve been able to predict the future and perfectly anticipated every possible need.

2. Replace toxic thoughts with helpful ones.

Recognizing toxic thoughts isn’t enough. It’s possible to recognize a toxic thought only to respond with more unhelpful thoughts: I called myself an idiot again, I really shouldn’t do that. I’m always such a jerk to myself. You wind up heaping even more shame on yourself.

Instead, be ready with gracious truths to replace the toxic thoughts: I’m only human, I’m doing the best I can. Or rehearse God’s lavish love for you: Nothing can separate me from the love of God (see Romans 8:38-39).

One of my favorite “breath prayers” is “I breathe in God’s grace, I breathe out God’s love.” It helps me take the time to actually breathe—easier said than done when anxiety starts peaking. And it reminds me of the steady supply of grace available to me when loving feels tough.

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3. Re-imagine your expectations.

Often, toxic thought patterns surface during the holidays when we have unrealistic expectations. Before the holidays are fully upon us is a great time to evaluate those expectations. Are we expecting ourselves, our children, our parents, the ambiance, and the weather to be “practically perfect in every way”? Or a dreadful disappointment?

Identify these self-made demands and re-imagine the possibilities. Things might go wrong and (unfortunately?) we cannot control anyone but ourselves. But we get to choose how we respond to disappointments, mishaps, or hurts. They can be opportunities to marinate in self-pity, self-hatred, discontentment, and bitterness or opportunities to receive (and extend) God’s tender grace, forgiveness, comfort, and love.

4. Return to your knees.

There’s no use in sugar-coating it—the holidays can be challenging. Some of our deepest pains, losses, and fears have a way of coming out of our careful hiding to be featured prominently like an ugly Christmas sweater.

None of us want to wear that uncomfortable sweater. But we can wear our truest selves with God. It’s His love, acceptance, and delight our souls crave at their deepest level.

As you breathe in His grace this holiday season, offer your toxic thoughts to Him in prayer. There are years that loss, hurt, and frustration at the brokenness of the world appropriately take up space in our hearts and minds. That’s alright. We don’t need to magic our problems away.

Even if the focus of our giving thanks this year winds up being solely that Jesus understands our sorrows, isolation, being misunderstood, running up against the brokenness around us—then may connecting with Him be a gift we are willing to receive this year.

Fullness of joy is found in Jesus’ presence, which follows us wherever we go, however we feel (see Psalm 16).

Let’s try it now, shall we?

I breathe in God’s grace (take a deep breath in), I breathe out God’s love (exhale slowly).

Rinse and repeat until January 2nd. Or until Heaven (which is when I will stop needing it).

Copyright © 2020 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

Laura Way serves with FamilyLife as a writer and lives in Orlando, Florida with her high-school-teaching-husband, Aubrey, and their two vibrant young daughters. She and Aubrey lived in East Asia for seven years until relocating last year. She enjoys writing about becoming more fully human while sojourning through different places, seasons of life, and terrains of mental and spiritual health at