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4 Tips for Managing Family Conflict This Thanksgiving

A scientific perspective on relationship stress.

Key points

  • Humans have an evolutionary stress response to conflict but can develop healthy responses with practice.
  • The capacity not to react is a trainable skill that is useful during heated conversations and other stressful situations.
  • Meditation can build the skills of awareness, connection, insight, and purpose for better relationships and greater well-being.

By Dr. Cortland Dahl

Element5 Digital/Unsplash
Source: Element5 Digital/Unsplash

Over the next few months, people will be spending the holidays with loved ones, and a familiar scene will play out at family gatherings worldwide. Amidst the laughter and warm conversation, there will be some tense moments and the occasional full-on argument. One moment everyone’s chatting about the weather, and before they know it, they are debating mask mandates and arguing about vaccinations or the latest political scandal.

For many of us, relating to people with different views about politics, religion, or social issues can trigger powerful feelings and impulses. It doesn’t matter if we’re conservative or liberal, atheist or deeply religious...we all get triggered and defensive occasionally, especially when our most cherished beliefs and values are being challenged.

Getting defensive isn’t a personal failing – It’s a completely predictable biological response. We are wired to defend ourselves, but not understanding our biological predispositions can get us into trouble and undermine healthy communication and supportive relationships.

The Biological Threat Response

As human beings, we did not evolve to be calm and emotionally balanced. We evolved to survive. Over countless centuries, we’ve become exceptionally good at detecting and responding to threats. Like any animal in a threatening situation, we usually do one of three things when we feel threatened: fight, freeze, or run away. If we’re bigger and stronger than our foe, we go on the attack. If we’re weaker but faster, we flee. And if there’s no other option, we curl up and play dead, hoping that our foe doesn’t notice us and leaves us alone. So this threat response is essential to our survival. So far, so good.

But here’s the problem. Although we are very good at detecting threats in our environment, we are utterly miserable at differentiating between physical threats and emotional threats. In other words, the same evolutionary threat response that helped our ancestors survive animal attacks when foraging for food gets triggered when a friend makes an insensitive comment, or we wake up in the morning and feel overwhelmed at the thought of our endless to-do list.

Our threat response is especially sensitive when our beliefs and worldview are threatened. When we feel strongly about something, and someone holds an opposing view, it often feels like an attack. A biological cascade gets set in motion that prepares us to fight, freeze, or flee. Stress hormones get released, our heart rate increases, our breathing changes, and our muscles tense...our entire body mobilizes to deal with a physical attack that never comes. Instead, our fight or flight response gets channeled into our communication patterns. We get aggressive, shut down, or deflect and try to steer the conversation somewhere less threatening.

This threat response also plays out in the brain. When we feel safe and supported in a normal conversation, we actively engage with the world around us. We listen, we take in nonverbal cues like facial expressions and gestures, and our brains weave all this information together seamlessly to respond appropriately. But when we feel threatened, a very different pattern emerges.

Research shows that when our political beliefs are challenged, for example, emotional centers like the amygdala become active, alongside the brain’s “default-mode network,” linked to rumination and self-referential thought.

The Skill of Not Reacting

While our threat response may be entirely predictable, it is not inevitable. Staying calm and centered is a skill. It’s something we can learn, practice, and get better at. In our lab at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we’ve studied some world-class experts in the art of staying chill. In one study, my colleagues Dr. Antoine Lutz and Dr. Richard Davidson put Tibetan monks in an fMRI and scanned their brains while they experienced intense (but bearable) physical pain.

When compared to ordinary people, these expert meditators had trained themselves to feel the pain without reacting. The scans of their brains showed that they experienced the pain even more acutely than non-meditators. Still, they experienced none of the anticipation or aftermath that the control group showed.

In ordinary terms, the data suggested that they could observe painful sensations without the emotional reaction that most people would experience. In subsequent research, our team and other scientists worldwide have discovered that the capacity not to react is a trainable skill that is tremendously useful during heated conversations and other stressful situations.

Strategies to Stay Cool Under Pressure

Several evidence-based strategies can help us deal with stressful situations. The Healthy Minds Framework, a scientific framework that my colleagues and I developed based on decades of research, focuses on four pillars of well-being that can support a healthy response when we feel threatened or defensive. These four pillars – awareness, connection, insight, and purpose – represent a set of skills that promote mental and emotional resilience. For example, mindfulness – a key component of awareness – activates brain regions that help us to regulate our thoughts, emotions, and impulses. So when someone challenges our opinion or makes a claim about something we find ludicrous, mindfulness can help us notice the threat response playing out in our body before it completely hijacks our mind. As a result, we can choose to listen instead of arguing or to disengage calmly. In short, we can respond and not react.

Here are a few simple tips to strengthen these four pillars of well-being so they can support you during tense moments.

Center for Healthy Minds
Dr. Cortland Dahl
Source: Center for Healthy Minds

Strategy 1: Pause for Awareness

It always helps to prepare for difficult moments. You can do this by taking a few moments each day for a short mindfulness meditation. Start by setting a clear intention for your practice. Think big. You can motivate yourself by thinking about how learning this skill will help you and the people in your life. Find a comfortable posture and bring awareness to your breath. Notice the sensations of your breath, cool as you breathe in, warm as you breathe out. This may seem completely unrelated to stressful situations. Still, once you get used to this skill, you can practice it in everyday life, and it will give you the ability to stay centered in challenging circumstances.

When you find yourself getting stressed out or emotionally reactive, hit your inner pause button. Take a few slow, deep, mindful breaths and check in with yourself. How do you feel? Are your muscles tense? Is your breath or heart rate elevated?

The point of this inner pause is not to judge what you notice as good or bad. You don’t even need to change anything. The power is in the noticing. Over time, the skill of mindful awareness will help you stay calm and centered, even in emotionally charged situations.

If you’d like to give mindfulness a try, here’s a short guided meditation to help you get started.

Strategy 2: Stay Connected

One of the first things to go when we feel threatened is to empathize and see other people in a positive light. Empathizing doesn’t mean we have to agree with someone’s perspective. It simply means that we see that they have a perspective and have their own reasons for seeing things the way they do.

To stay connected in a stressful moment, practice empathetic listening. Give the people you are with your full attention and really try to understand their view. Even if you don’t end up agreeing with each other, you can leave the disagreement feeling connected and respected rather than unheard and alienated.

Here’s an appreciation meditation if you’d like to give this a try.

Strategy 3: Gain Insight

Defending our point of view can keep us closed to new information and fresh perspectives. We can turn the tables on a defensive attitude by consciously choosing to examine our own reactions. Notice your thoughts and feelings and how they are shaping your perspective. Whether your impulse is to go on the attack or to check out and shut down, check to see if your biological threat response is active.

Instead of judging yourself or the other person for being defensive, get curious. Treat the moment as an opportunity to learn and grow.

For a brief insight practice, try this meditation on questioning assumptions.

Strategy 4: Discover Purpose

When we’re in the thick of a tense conversation, we often lose track of our values and deeper motivations, but a clear sense of purpose can be a powerful way to relate to others healthily. If you find yourself feeling threatened or defensive, pause and ask yourself, “When I am at my best, how do I relate to others, even when I disagree or see things differently?” Use the situation as an opportunity to clarify an important personal value like integrity or kindness or a guiding purpose, such as the aspiration to treat others with dignity and respect.

Try this guided meditation on values in difficult times if you’d like to work on this skill.

With a little patience and steady practice, you can train your mind and rewire your brain to healthily respond to threatening situations (like a family gathering). This won’t stop your biological threat response from happening, but it will help you stay balanced amidst the ups and downs in life and perhaps even learn and grow from the inevitable challenges you will face.