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.

Consider what sets you off

Instead of feeling caught by surprise, “know your personal triggers,” said Monique Winnett, clinical psychologist at St. Joseph’s Health. “There tends to be a lot of moving parts when we get together with family. Being more upfront and aware that can let us know when we need to take a step back.”

Engage in self-care

If you arrive at a get-together exhausted, stressed and emotionally empty, it’s likely you won’t fare as well emotionally as if you arrive refreshed and content.
“Do things that help you feel like your best self,” Winnett said. “Take a long walk. Talk with someone who helps you relax. Destress.”

Plan conversations

Especially if you’re hosting, agree in advance that you won’t discuss hot-button topics.

“My general principle is that we have conflict with other people over the differences we have with them,” said Rich O’Neill, psychologist in the Upstate Medical University department of psychology, and host of WCNY TV’s Cycle of Health. “Find what we have in common. But for some folks, conflict is the way they get excited.”

Some family members may feel relieved that you don’t want to hash out politics or religion and join you in friendly small talk.

Stay realistic

Don’t anticipate that your uncle who asks embarrassing questions will behave himself this year. Sengupta said that instead, it’s wise to prepare for the questions. 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.

“Give people positive comments and steer the conversation away from the negative,” O’Neill said. “Social niceties are there for a reason: they work.”

Realize it’s not about 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 to boost his own image.

“Don’t take it personally,” O’Neill said. “Who knows where they’re coming from emotionally and psychologically. Remember this is more about them than it is about me.”

Sometimes, Aunt Busybody asks about your love life so she has something to think about and talk about because her life is boring. Share only what you want the rest of your family to know. 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, pause.

“If you feel hurt or angry, take a breath and respond in a way that takes you to your goal of having a good time with that person and at the party,” O’Neill said.

Excuse yourself to go to the restroom. This allows time for you to compose a reply, whether you answer the question or not. 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?”

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 questioned about why she’s not married. She offered, “Just lucky, I guess” as her cheeky reply. Humor can diffuse a situation if not at the expense of others. Cruel remarks or mocking ramps up the drama.

Set boundaries

“One simple thing that you can try is to practice things to say like, ‘That’s a difficult topic; I’d rather not talk about it,’” O’Neill said. “Politicians are excellent at this. They avoid offending people by doing the pivot, which is saying, ‘That’s a very good question’ and talk about what they want to. We can follow that example. If you feel like you’re being set up, don’t take the bait.”

Focus on the positive

It can be easy to show up at a family gathering anticipating a bad time and then experience one; however, Sengupta said that engaging in an activity instead of only talking can help the time together pass pleasantly than struggling to make non-offensive small talk.

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.

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.

Curb the booze

If you host, consider reducing the alcohol or eliminating it altogether, as this strategy can improve guests’ behavior. Drinking tends to lift inhibitions.

“If everyone brings a bottle of wine, ‘Thank you very much’ and put them in the cupboard,” O’Neill said.

Get busy

Planning games and activities can keep everyone busy enough to not get into verbal conflicts.