How to Stay Sane Over the Holidays, According to 10 Mental-Health Experts

Pressure points, muscle relaxation and better questions to ask the uncles

How to Deal With Your Family During the Holidays
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By Tanner Garrity / November 26, 2019 5:46 am

Comedian Colin Quinn has a great bit about that moment the family car leaves a holiday gathering, when everyone in the car goes from waving goodbye to the hosts, to turning to each other and going: “What the fuck was that?!”

Family members, like just about everyone else in the world, have opinions on things. On how to best prepare food. On your love life and career choices. On the goings-on in a city called Washington, D.C. Some of them, inexplicably, choose to share these thoughts on a day like Thanksgiving in an overcrowded room, where people are wearing itchy wool sweaters, binge-drinking, and home is over an hour away.

It’s enough to turn a day built on communion and compassion into a typhoon of anxiety and anger. Which is understandable — it’s only natural to care about the behavior of our loved ones on such a big day — but also utterly unnecessary. Thanksgiving, ideally, should mimic the last 10 minutes of an Anthony Bourdain special; just a bunch of laughing people sitting around a well-lit table, enjoying a ton of good food and listening to good music.

That vision hopefully doesn’t sound like a pipe dream. But in case it does, know that you can at the very least control your Thanksgiving experience this year. We rounded up a panel of experts to help figure out exactly how to do that. Below, find 10 thoughts, hacks and pieces of advice from health professionals, yoga instructors, life coaches and family therapists, so you can drive home from Thanksgiving with your sanity intact, and (next to) no gossip to speak of.

Listeners are respected — and rare these days


“Practice listening to what people are saying without interrupting. This is tough, but you’d be surprised how open others are when you give them enough silence to speak. Now, when you do speak, try and repeat what they said, but with your own words to show them you’re attempting to understand them. And no, understanding what they are saying does not mean you’re agreeing with them. Remember to stay curious and assume that know something that you don’t.” — Jacob Kountz, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist

Have a couple conversation tricks handy


“Stay mindful of your thoughts and emotions during conversation by focusing on your breath. You’re less likely to be reactive when you’re taking conscious breaths, and no one will even know that you’re doing it. Try measured count breathing: inhale for five seconds, hold for five seconds, exhale for five seconds. Also: when you’re in a contentious conversation, focus your gaze at the point between people’s eyebrows. It looks like you’re making eye contact, but you can use that time to recenter yourself with breathing if you feel upset. It also helps create a healthy space between you and the other person, when their conversation points are imposing.” — Sarah Stewart, Holistic Health Practitioner (AADP)

Establish your own traditions


“Before you head over to Nana’s for roasted ham, sneak in a round of golf. At the end of the day, open a special bottle of your favorite expensive wine, or splurge on a new book. Maybe even take a break from the family thing for one year and spend it with friends. Regardless of what it is, look for ways to build positive associations and self-care into holiday rhythms. This way you don’t enter the season feeling deprived.” — Karissa Sovdi, Registered Clinical Counsellor

Sleep well the night before


“People think a lot about food and exercise in relation to health, but sleep is often the forgotten pillar of staying healthy and sane during the holidays. Stay on your sleep routine. If you really want to sleep in, don’t. Wake up at your normal time and cozy up with a book or some calming activity. If you’re on the road, try to replicate your home sleep environment as much as possible, taking mind of temperature, darkness, sound. And make sure to watch the caffeine … it takes four hours to rid your body of half the caffeine you’ve consumed. Rely on cold water, and later in the evening drink a nice cup of peppermint, cinnamon, or other seasonal herbal tea instead of coffee or soda.” — Ed Pienkosz, Head Sleeping Coach at Beddr

Better questions yield better answers


“Go in with pre-decided questions such as, “What are you really excited about right now? What has been your favorite memory this year? What do you think about entering a brand new decade?” Don’t reveal anything about yourself that they cannot or will not be happy to support you on.” — David Neagle, Founder of Life is Now, Inc.

Muscle relaxation works wonders


“I teach clients the power of progressive muscle relaxation. Usually, I have clients tense different muscles on different parts of the body for about 10-15 seconds at a time, and then let go. This relaxes the body over time. Because you’re at a dining table, keep the focus on your thighs, calves, feet and toes. Focus on different muscle group; flex and hold the tension for that short time period, then move in to the next muscle group. By the time you’re done, chances are you’re relaxed. Also, you may have been so focused on each muscle that your mind is no longer invested in the tumultuous conversations at the dinner table.” — Jacob Kountz, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist

Pretend you’re a political researcher


“When talking politics with those whose views oppose yours, pretend you’re collecting opposition research. Ask open-ended questions. Use skills that psychologists use to help draw people out, like restating or summarizing what your source said. And when you’re learning about the opposition, avoid sharing your own opinion. This might shut down your source. This strategy lends you distance by taking you out of your emotions and engaging your intellect; you’re just collecting data. It also gets you out of the cycle of the back and forth. Who knows, this exercise could even help you develop more persuasive points when you feel in the mood to spar with those outside of family.” — Heather Z. Lyons, PhD, Baltimore Therapy Group

Find your center


“When all your best laid plans go south and you find yourself with a racing heart, remember that there’s an acupressure point located in the center of your palm, known as the Calming Point. It calms the heart and soothes apprehension and anxiety. To stimulate it, curl your ring finger in and press it gently in to your palm, making a loose fist with the rest of your fingers. Breathe naturally and release the pressure after a minute or so.” — Kate Hanley, Yoga instructor, author, personal development coach

Consider the “perception technique”


“A research study was done on two groups of participants who had intense anxiety before facing a crowd of people. All involved were wearing heart rate monitors. Group One was told to give a speech, and their heart rates were off the charts. Group Two was told to give a speech as well, but were told the following: “Your heart is pounding because your body is preparing you to do something great.” Their heart rates decreased, and they felt more confident in their performance. When you’re headed into a house full of family, with a fast heart rate, try not to count yourself out from the start. Consider that you might be about to do great things.” — Jacob Kountz, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist

You’re allowed to stand by your beliefs


“While changing someone’s perspective at the Thanksgiving table rarely happens, do not encourage, laugh or agree with something you find reprehensible. A prolonged look before a topic change can speak volumes.  You can also excuse yourself from the table to “visit” the restroom and text a friend. If you feel comfortable enough, you may even comment ‘Uncle Joe, if someone who doesn’t know you as well as we do heard that, they might find that comment quite offensive.’” — Jodi RR Smith, Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting

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