You love your family, right? So why does the thought of a big Thanksgiving dinner or other family gatherings for the holiday season have you thinking about staying home by yourself instead?
It could be because these get-togethers often bring mixed emotions. You might be happy to see family and friends you care about, but find it challenging to connect with them. When everyone is together, joy and tension may go hand in hand.
“With other gatherings, we might choose who we’re going to invite. But our family gatherings often don’t provide as much choice. We might feel like we must invite certain family members because they’re family and they’ve been participating in holidays and other gatherings over time,” said Brendon Comer, a licensed clinical social worker with Banner Health.
Focus on your breathing and your sensations
There are ways to make it easier to manage the emotions that can come with gatherings of extended families. One of the most important things you can do is pay attention to your breathing and your body before, during and after the event.
“Our breathing and the sensations in our bodies can show us that our emotions are getting activated,” Comer said. “You might notice that your breaths are short and shallow or feel tension in different parts of your body.”
If other family gatherings have been stressful, your mind and body might feel stressed before an event. “Take a few minutes before you leave for the gathering to check in with your breathing and your body,” Comer said. “Slow and deepen your breathing if you need to. Recognize that parts of you might be dreading or fearing certain people or discussions.”
During the event, stress might come up. “That uncle has been rigid, Mom’s support has felt like she doesn’t trust you and a cousin won’t stop talking about how much money he makes,” Comer said.
You might feel your breathing change, notice tension in your body and find that you’re angry and frustrated. When you recognize these discomforts, give yourself some personal space and grounding. Step outside or into an empty room or bathroom. Take slow, deep breaths and acknowledge your emotions. These steps can help you relax and return to the family gathering feeling more grounded.
After the event, take time and space to think about it. Notice if you’re being hard on yourself with thoughts like, “I should have said this” or “I definitely shouldn’t have said that.” Take any lessons learned and wisdom to the next event.
Here are some more tips on handling the stress and anxiety of these events:
1. Be realistic: No family is perfect. Disagreements and differences are part of family dynamics. Keep that in mind going into your holiday celebration so you’re not disappointed when issues come up.
2. Take time to care for yourself: “Practicing self-care before, during and after family gatherings can make a big difference in being able to stay grounded, patient, present and connected during these events,” Comer said.
Get enough rest, eat nourishing foods and take part in relaxing activities. That way, you’ll be in a better position to handle any challenges that come up. Never underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep. When you take care of your physical and mental health during the holidays, you’re in a better position to handle whatever challenges come up.
3. Communicate mindfully: To reduce tension, practice active listening. That’s where you focus on what other people are saying without forming judgments right away. You can show interest, listen to other people’s opinions and try to understand their point of view. Mindful communication helps prevent misunderstandings when people see things differently.
4. Agree to disagree: Before things get too heated, recognize the other person’s opinions and try to shift the conversation. If someone says something that hurts you, try to end the cycle there rather than hurting them back. Remember that you can disagree with someone and still respect and love them.
5. Be curious: Curiosity can help you move away from expecting doom and discomfort and make space for possibility and learning. If you see family members as “angry” or “anxious,” try to notice what else is part of their life experience. And notice how you are reacting to them. “That can be the first step in opening up space for curiosity and, possibly, compassion,” Comer said.
6. Set boundaries: Politely decline discussions or topics that make you uncomfortable. It’s okay to excuse yourself from talking about something that is probably going to lead to a conflict.
7. Reframe your perspective: Try to see negative situations in more positive ways. Instead of focusing on family conflicts, think about the moments of joy and connection. This mental shift can keep you from dwelling on the negative side of things.
8. Manage your expectations: Some family members will probably act in ways you don’t like. Try not to expect them to change — you’ll just feel frustrated and disappointed. Instead, focus on what you can control, like how you react and respond.
9. Head off conflict: Offer to set out place cards so everyone has an assigned seat. This way, you can keep people who might bicker away from each other. If your family event traditionally has separate tables for kids and adults, think about mixing the generations together. Sometimes, people behave better in front of children.
10. Identify stress triggers: Recognize the situations that tend to lead to holiday stress or conflicts. Plan how you’ll handle them. You might want to do some breathing exercises or take a short walk to take care of your mental health.
11. Use humor: Lighthearted jokes and shared laughter can reduce tension and create a more relaxed atmosphere. Just be careful not to use humor at the expense of others.
12. Bring positive activities: Supply games, stories or shared interests that can take attention away from possible conflicts and focus energy on good times everyone can enjoy. Spend time sharing happy memories of earlier holidays, talk about the Black Friday or Cyber Monday deals you want to buy or watch some football together.
13. Practice gratitude: Thanksgiving is all about gratitude. Think about what you’re thankful for when it comes to your family and the gathering. Focusing on the positives can improve your mood and help you enjoy the experience.
The bottom line
Family gatherings this time of year can bring up strong emotions and difficult situations. Try focusing on your breath and the way you feel, taking care of yourself and setting the stage for positive experiences. That way, you’ll be in a better position to enjoy the time with your loved ones.
If you would like to talk to a mental health professional about the best ways to manage your interactions with your family, reach out to Banner Health.