–by Bill Roman

There’s no place like home for the holidays—Ugh. Does that prospect leave a pit in your stomach or make you break out in a cold sweat? There’s a reason that the day before Thanksgiving marks the largest drinking day of the year, or that DUIs jump up in occurrence, or that domestic violence increases during the holiday season. And we all talk about the added stress of the month of December, regardless of religious conviction.

For many of us the stress is compounded by the fact that the holiday season ushers in the family obligation time. Now comes the jockeying for whose family gets rights to Christmas dinner, or the yearly Hanukkah celebration or Kwanza observance. Family demands and expectations usually get heightened during this time and along with those exaggerated expectations come the possibility of hurt feelings, flaring arguments and the self-pledge of no repeats next year.

So as you’re traveling this year, or hosting the annual family time, how best to prepare for it and be aware of your own anxious thoughts?

First, it’s important to remember that every family has its own rules of engagement, that is, how members interact with one another. That in its self can be nerve-wracking, but if you’re aware of how that works and how you play out your own part you’ll be ahead of the game. When you know what is happening you’re better able to change the way you respond instead of reacting.

­Here are a couple of plays you can make during this emotionally difficult season:

  1. It’s helpful to do some prep work before plunging into the season. Try out two minutes of mindful breathing a couple of times a day. This is actually thinking about breathing, which is something hardly anyone ever does. You’ll be amazed at the calming effect of this little exercise. The calmer you are inwardly the better equipped you’ll be to handle those family surprises.
  2. Pay attention to your self-talk. You put yourself behind the eight ball when you doubt your own ability to deal with matters. Stay positive about yourself and your skills.
  3. Keep perspective about the season. It is not going to be perfect by a long shot but if you have manageable and realistic expectations you’ll be more satisfied and less anxious. There is a reason that there are twelve days to Christmas.
  4. Once you’ve arrived at the event, practice contact, not closeness. This means be in contact with everyone in the room or in the family. Greet them all with a “hello,” but you don’t have to engage further if you’re uncomfortable. Contact means just that, but closeness can draw you into the emotional quicksand that often is present in these affairs.
  5. Have in mind your hot topics—your “no-go” list. These days most anything can be the cause for an argument. You do not need to go there. If someone baits you simply respond, “I’m not comfortable now talking about that.” If they insist, you simply repeat the previous sentence. Rinse and repeat can be a helpful ploy.
  6. Pay attention to your body cues—as your anxiety rises what does your body feel like– sweaty palms, pit in the stomach, crossed eyebrows? Our bodies are in contact with our emotions long before our brain kicks in. When you pay attention to your body cues you’ll be able to respond more intelligently and less emotionally.
  7. Have a plan for engagement. If things get too emotionally flooded for you, simply excuse yourself for the moment, go to another room, take some deep breaths, and do something to calm yourself. There has been a lot of quality research done on “Timed Outs” as an effective way to regain your poise and help you to re-engage later.
  8. Monitor your food and alcohol intake. Food is mood and if you’re stuffed on sugar and carbs you’ll feel energy drained. Increased alcohol consumption is a good way to get ugly fast. That’s best left to better times.
  9. Practice generosity. Give others in your family compliments instead of criticisms and see what happens. Also, this is a good chance to get out of yourself and help someone less fortunate than you.
  10. Cultivate a sense of humor. It’s important to laugh at circumstances and yourself. Dysfunctional Family Bingo is hilarious and can be found on Google. Laughter is the best medicine to ease tension and anxiety.
    Family holiday times, while presenting the possibility of stress and unhappiness, can also be the incubator for new ways of behaving and interacting. This year might be a good year to experiment with some of these suggestions and see if they won’t help you enjoy the Holiday Cheer.

Bill Roman is a Licensed Professional Counselor by the State of Ohio and in private practice serving clients in Northwest Ohio and Michigan. Cruciblelr.com