The holiday season is fast approaching. Turkey dinners, family pictures, holiday shopping, and festivities. It’s the season of family, friends and good times, and additionally, some familial drama and dysfunction. As author Garrison Keillor tells us, “A lovely thing about Christmas is that it is compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.”
A trip home after we have left for college can bring with it some interesting challenges, and bring up some past issues that we felt like we had escaped once we made our way to college. Dealing with these issues can be a bit of a downer when it comes to the holiday season. With a few simple steps, we can easily avoid and correct these issues and bring back a large portion of the holiday spirit we experienced during our childhood, while simultaneously acting as adults. We often revert to childhood dynamics when we are put in familial situations.
Believe it or not, many of the feelings of anxiety and panic we feel when facing challenges, including the familial kind, have to do with a small, almond shaped cluster of cells near the base of our brain. This set of small clusters is known as the amygdala. The amygdala is the starting point for fear and anxiety reactions. Having anxiety does not mean there is something wrong with your amygdala. Anxiety and panic attacks occur when we experience environmental or emotional stressors that are telling our amygdala that we are in danger.
When we were younger, we had very little control over the events in our lives. The beauty about being adults is that now we have plenty of it. The following tips with the right attitude to accompany them may make it a lot more tolerable and enjoyable.
When it comes to dealing with troubled relationships, it is important to remember that we have three choices of action:
- Keep the status quo (doing the same thing)
- Try and change someone else
- Change yourself
Moving forward means looking for a change, and every change starts with ourselves. When those trips home for the holidays start, try some of these tips to make it a little bit better.
1. Plan ahead. Use past experiences as a guide. Make mental lists of events that are likely to transpire (for example, Uncle Bill going through four bottles of wine before dinner, or Aunt Sue commenting about my weight, etc). Knowing you will be in a psychological wrestling match can protect you from unrealistic expectations.
2. Notice what’s different. We revert to childish behaviors around our family, or in some cases we turn into our 15 year-old selves. Many of us at the age of 15 did not have the greatest of psychological insights. Old wounds are reopened and we regress to our old coping patterns. Don’t focus on the old, but look at the new. Remember, you aren’t an adolescent anymore, but a rational adult.
3. Know your triggers. Know what makes you feel upset. Triggers can be a wide array of things, such as people, smells, sights, sounds, foods, alcohol, emotional intensities, tone of voice and many more. You don’t need to avoid them altogether, but be aware of how these things make you feel.
4. Identify your trigger thoughts. After we’ve been triggered, we often start thinking in a certain manner. It is important to remember that our thoughts have a large impact on our behavior.
5. Come prepared with how to cope. When you start feeling upset, whether it is angry, frustrated, sad or any other emotion, there are still plenty of things you can do to help deal with the situation (examples of coping strategies could be excuse yourself from the situation, go to the bathroom, stretch your arms over your head to release tension, close your eyes, call a friend, leave at a set time, etc).
6. Celebrate! You’re attending a family gathering, it’s a time of being together and enjoying the time you have. Plan on doing relaxing and entertaining things together, not throwing fuel on the family flames.
Going home can be a challenge, but it’s very important to remember that there are plenty of ways to deal with family drama. The most important thing to remember is that we are going home for the holidays to spend time with people who matter to us. Enjoy your time with them, and most importantly, don’t forget to celebrate.