Holiday: Stay Mentally Healthy

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Follow 10 rules and be well

The holiday season can generate warmth, togetherness and joy among family members. But for some, it can manifest drama, emotional pain and frustration.

If some of your family members cause the latter, you can plan to preserve your mental health when you get together.

Don’t Borrow Trouble

“Be aware of the concept of anticipatory anxiety,” said Dawn LeBeau, licensed clinical social worker and owner of Dawn LeBeau Counseling Services in Rochester. “Anticipatory anxiety occurs when we think about something that’s coming up. It peaks right before the actual event, when we walk through the door. Often, it falls off hard and fast after. Rarely is the situation as awful as we anticipate.”

Stay Realistic

Don’t anticipate that your uncle who asks embarrassing questions will behave himself this year. LeBeau said that instead, it’s wise to prepare for the questions with a few answers. For example, if your uncle asks why you dropped out of college, explain your plans for the year. But don’t expect him to simply accept you know what you’re doing and praise your ideas.

Realize It’s Not About You

The issue is with him and not you. If Uncle Nosey asks why you’re not as successful in business as your cousin, perhaps he is trying to compensate for your cousin’s romantic shortcomings.

Maybe your uncle asks within your cousin’s earshot to build her up — even though it tears you down. Or he could boast about her business so that he looks like a better parent.

Sometimes, Aunt Busybody asks about your love life so she has something to think about and talk about. Share only what you want the rest of your family to know. Or perhaps she lives vicariously through her younger family members because her own life is so boring. Her motivation could be as innocent as hoping you find someone as wonderful as her husband, without the realization that you feel content single.

Don’t Blurt Out a Reply

When pressed about a sensitive topic, “practice a pause,” LeBeau said. “That’s the deep breath we try to take before we respond. Or take a quick trip to the bathroom to let yourself settle a little bit.”

Those knee-jerk responses and fighting fire with fire result in regret. Asking, “Why do you want to know?” both buys time and puts the questioner on the spot.

Sometimes questioners clearly want to stir the pot, such as, “You don’t really think your daughter has chosen the right career, do you?”

Of course, you love your daughter and want to rush to her defense. However, staying upbeat is the right strategy: “I support my daughter’s decisions; it’s her life.” And then change the subject.

Use Humor

Emulate the 30-something woman pressed about why she’s not married. She offered, “Just lucky, I guess” as her cheeky reply.

“A sense of humor can diffuse a situation,” LeBeau said.

Just don’t make the humor at the expense of others. Cruel remarks or mocking ramps up the drama.

Set Boundaries

No law says that you must discuss any topic a family member brings up. LeBeau said that it’s perfectly OK to say, “I’m not prepared to talk about that right now” and change the subject.

“I encourage people to practice that,” she said. “As a guided imagery, imagine yourself coming up with and using that response. The more you practice that response, the more comfortable it gets. We don’t owe people an answer. Being respectful of your own self is important.”

Ask the other person a question about a positive topic or offer information on something you care to discuss.

Focus on the Positive

It can be easy to show up at a family gathering anticipating a bad time and then experience one.

LeBeau said that looking for and mentally emphasizing the positive aspects is better for mental health. Note that cousin who offered a compliment or the positive comment on your dessert or outfit.

“If we’re looking for love and kindness, that is what we’ll find,” she said. “We often write a narrative that people meant to be hurtful, but some people lack social skills that leads to them being hurtful.”

Zero in on a positive, uplifting family member. But extend grace to the downers, especially considering the social awkwardness generated by the pandemic’s isolation.

Perform Self-Care

Avoid going to a family gathering with the expectation of others meeting your emotional needs, especially if they have not done so in the past.

“The most important thing is to take care of ourselves before we have these kinds of potentially tense situations,” said Erin Thompson, licensed clinical social worker and owner of Believe and Breathe Counseling in Penfield.

This could include taking time for mindfulness, deep breathing and other methods of de-stressing. Getting into the right frame of mind can make it easier to handle triggering situations or comments.

Plan Topics of Conversation
Mentally rehearse “safe” topics, like the weather or sports which other family members cannot turn into verbal abuse. These distractions can keep the conversation from veering into dangerous waters.

If that happens anyway, Thompson advises going outside for a break, helping out in the kitchen or joining the children for a while. Stepping away can reduce the effects of hurtful comments.

Reduce Your Exposure

Plan to give your family a signal it’s time to go if things get too dicey. If your mental health will suffer regardless of the strategies you employ, it’s OK to stop in briefly to the gathering and then leave — or not even go at all. See non-toxic family members another time so you can avoid others’ verbal haranguing.