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Holiday Stress: Dealing with Family Drama and Dysfunction

'Tis the season for dealing with difficult blood relatives.

"A lovely thing about Christmas is that it's compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together." –Garrison Keillor

The holidays don’t have to be one insufferable family affair after another. You can bring some of the joy back from childhood, as long as you remember to act like an adult. That wasn’t meant to be sarcastic, by the way. Reverting back to childhood dynamics is common when we’re threatened with familial drama and dysfunction.

Blame it on your brain. Stressful events can trigger an amygdala attack.

“The amygdala is a set of small, almond-shaped clusters of nuclei near the base of your brain. These almond-shaped clusters are the most active when you experience fear or aggression, due to the fact that they are responsible for triggering the body’s fight or flight response. Anxiety and panic attacks occur when environmental or emotional stressors convince your amygdala that you are in danger.”

As a child, you didn’t have control over a lot of the events in your life. The beauty is now you do. The following tips may not turn out a terrific holiday season, but they can make it a more tolerable one.

The golden rule when dealing with troubled relationships is knowing you have three choices:

  1. Maintain the status quo (do not do anything different).
  2. Try and change someone else.
  3. Change yourself.

Assuming you’d like to work on your reactions, try the following tips:

  1. Plan ahead. Knowing you’re in for a psychological arm wrestle can protect you from unrealistic expectations like, “This time things will be different.” Using experience as a guide, make a mental list of three events that are likely to occur (for example, Uncle Joe will drink four bottles of wine; Grandma will comment about my weight, Dad will stonewall us by dessert, etc.)
  2. Know your triggers. Think people, smells, sights, sounds, tone of voice, foods, alcohol, emotional intensity, etc.
  3. Identify your trigger thoughts that increase anger. (I'm always stuck watching the kids because I'm the childless daughter; Mom never holds Cousin Rob accountable for his behavior, Nobody mentioned my job promotion, etc.)
  4. List your coping strategies for dealing with anger. (I can excuse myself, take a walk, do deep breathing, go to the bathroom to practice positive mantras, remind myself to stay in the here-and-now, stretch my arms over my head to release tension, close my eyes, call a friend, leave at a set time, etc.)
  5. Notice what’s different. We often turn into 15-year-olds around family (a time when we didn’t have agency or psychological insight). Old wounds are reopened and we revert back to childhood coping patterns. Remember that you’re no longer an adolescent, but a capable, rational adult.
  6. Celebrate! You're attending a family gathering with a finite end time. Plan on doing something nice and relaxing to celebrate keeping your cool and not fanning the family flames!

For more information on handling family stress, check out Team Happy. Follow Linda Esposito on Facebook.

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