By Dr Karen Calabria
With Christmas rapidly approaching some of you may be starting to feel a little trepidation at the thought of spending extra time with the extended family. Even if you’re close with your family, it’s normal for there to be increased tension and conflict especially at this time of year. You may even notice interactions with family could lead you to feel strong feelings of anxiety, sadness and anger.
The key to thriving requires some forward planning and just a few moments of self-reflection. Before spending any length of time with the family, reduce as many factors as possible that could make you more susceptible to being triggered. For example, in the lead up to Christmas, if you can, make self-care a priority. Ensuring you're sleeping enough, eating well, minimising alcohol use and exercising will improve your ability to control difficult emotions and reduce the likelihood of being triggered. Also, it’s a tempting time to see extra patients before the shut-down period, remember it’s OK to say no and set firm boundaries. Feeling tired and overworked will only make you more vulnerable at this time.
To understand what triggers you, reflect back to previous family gatherings and make a mental note of those situations and interactions that you found activating, where you felt strong feelings emerging. Triggers are quite unique and what could trigger you might not trigger someone else. It could be as simple as your mum asking you 'are you wearing that to lunch?’, to a cousin not speaking to you or to a brother-in-law boasting about his most recent boat/car/house purchase.
Once you’ve identified what your past triggers have been, cope ahead by imagining how the most healthy, confident version of yourself would handle that situation. For example, in the face of any veiled criticism, you may imagine yourself nodding and smiling confidently, “yes mum, I love this dress and it’s perfect for outdoors!’.
Being clear about your values and what behaviours are most in line with these values can help. If you have a value around honesty, it might be that you picture your healthy adult self, arranging a time for a conversation with mum about how you feel when she asks that type of question. In the moment, take a few (or many!) mindful breaths and reflect on those behaviours that are in line with those values.
Importantly, if you are triggered and don’t act in accordance with your values, be gentle on yourself. Family dynamics are complex and are difficult to navigate at the best of times. Remind yourself that conflict isn’t a bad thing and is often necessary for growth and change in families. Also, Psychologists and Clinical Psychologists are available to help you through these tough times if you find that you’re struggling with big feelings that families can often generate.