The fall and winter holidays can be a wonderful time to catch up with family you don't get to see throughout the rest of the year. It can also be a time when long dormant animosities creep into our consciousness, animated by both our family history and the current cultural and political minefields of our time. If you, or your loved ones, are one of the 52.9 million Americans with a diagnosed mental illness, the holidays can be a grimmer tale. That's because 64 percent of those with mental illness say the holidays make their conditions worse.
So, how can we make it so these family gatherings aren't a source of dread for us, but rather the joyous, illuminating events that our carols, commercials, and holiday cards make them out to be? It just takes a little planning, observation, and practice.
Two therapists, Patrick Bryant, LCSW, owner of The Peaceful Place in downtown Decatur, and Anna Kaye, LPC, who practices in the Buckhead community of Atlanta, share their tried and true strategies.
Alcohol: Know Your Limits
Alcohol can help some of us relax and be more sociable in certain quantities, but in others, it can increase our anxiety, and even make us more belligerent. Think of it like a drug (because it is). Most of us wouldn't take a random amount of medication not knowing how it will affect us, but that's what some do at holiday gatherings. We often drink more than we mean to, or we neglect to factor in the amount of alcohol in that microbrew our cousin from from Wisconsin.
Be Intentional, don't drink to escape
"Be mindful and keep track of how much and how often you consume," says Bryant.
Consider how the mixture of beer, wine, and liquor you're consuming affects you. Hint: if
people have told you that Bourbon makes you quarrelsome, do yourself a favor, and believe
Be mindful of your priority when you go
Is it to socialize? Is it an obligation? Is it to party? Knowing your main reason for being there
can help you keep your drinking to appropriate levels.
Have a clear sense of your baseline for stress and emotional arousal
Are you a stressed person? Do you get stressed around certain people? Does a busy kitchen
brimming with 10 people trying to cook all around you make you shake? Go into the day
equipped with that knowledge and a plan for when it occurs.
Socializing: Know Your Limits
It pays to remember who you're socializing with. These may not be eminently reasonable people you self-selected as friends. These are your family. These are people whom, if there were no relation, you may not choose to hang out with many of them.
You won't change them, they won't change you.
Learn it. Know it. Live it.
Respect is key.
"When he was living, my dad and I had an understanding that no matter what we talked
about, we respected each other well enough to have an intelligent conversation," adds
Assume the best of people you're socializing with. If things do get heated, cool your jets. "It
takes two for an argument, you don't have to match their tone," points out Kaye.
It takes one to know one
For all the times you think it's hard to believe Uncle Derek could be so ignorant, remember
he probably thinks the same about you. "People often reflect what they experience," adds
Know the culture
Some families talk loudly, others barely at all. Whatever situation you find yourself in,
matching people's volume and tone can make things easier. It may sound like yelling, but
that's just how my Italian family talks.
Be mindful of what you take on
Family obligations can be passed down from generation to generation, but that doesn't
mean you have to continue the madness. If you're fine with hosting, but the thought of
cooking for everyone makes you feel faint, consider making it a pot-luck, order in, or do
something entirely unorthodox. "There's always more than one way to celebrate, " says
Be mindful of your travels
A corollary of the above, if going to your people's house, and to your spouse's people's
house is too much, then don't. Holidays aren't the only time you can get together. And even
if it is, you can always rotate. It's your life. Live it according to your own values, not
To go or not to go
If family gatherings are a battlefield, think like a commander. Is it worth going for what
you're risking? If you sexuality or gender is likely to be made an issue, take care of yourself
ahead of time, and cope ahead. "If it's not worth the hassle, or you don't feel like you can or
want to educate them, consider spending the time with people you don't have to educate,"
Family Regression is Real
When people return home, they're often astounded (or jaded) by the fact that they are treated like they were when they were a kid. Even though Justine might be a successful adult with mature responsibilities, her family may still think of and treat her like "the baby."
Laughter is (often) the best medicine
"It's often hard to convince people to change the way they see you, so it's easier to make a
joke out of it," says Bryant.
Sibling: What do you think I should do?
You: I let my membership in the oldest and wisest club lapse, so I'm afraid I'm not
qualified to give that advice.
Chances are, you know what the arguments will be about before you even head out the door, so cope ahead of time.
Plan your moves
If you're stuck in a conversation with your father-in-law who doesn't know when to shut up,
consider tag teaming with your partner. "Create a secret signal, so you'll know when each
other needs help," says Kaye.
Before you even decide to go, you can sit comfortably and imagine you're going. "What does
that do for you? What emotions arise? What are they attached to? Is there a social rule, a
family rule? And if so, do you need that rule, now that you're an adult?" says Bryant.
Before you go inside, do whatever you need to do to calm your nerves. Consider a brief
meditation, or 7-11 breaths to get your parasympathetic nervous system on board.
Know when to expand your zone
"Being in a house with a lot of people can feel confining. So get outdoors if you're feeling
restricted," says Bryant. You can even make it a group event, like throwing the football,
shooting hoops, or go take a walk alone.
When Issues Arise
Take a pause
Before speaking or acting, be mindful of any automatic negative thoughts or responses you
have. Allow yourself to reset.
Know what you can and can't control
"Ask yourself if what' happening holds value for you. If it does, where does it hold value,
what kinds of values, and how much?" said Kaye. This will help you respond in a way that is
congruent with your self-respect without going overboard.
In a Nutshell
Perhaps, the most important recommendation, said Bryant, "is to prioritize what's actually important to you during this time. Keep expectations realistic, for yourself and for others, and set healthy boundaries." That will help you keep your stress low enough so that you can have a wonderful time this holiday season.