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Tips for Surviving Thanksgiving

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

It’s Thanksgiving, a time when many of us get together with family who don’t all think or believe the way we do. Things can be said and tempers can flare. Some of us get very anxious just thinking about it.

Whether it’s a panic attack, severe anxiety, or molten hot anger, there are some things you can do to keep on top of your feelings. In either case, your fight-flight-or-freeze system is in overdrive when you are in one of those states. Be aware that at a certain point your emotional brain has control over your rational, thinking brain. That’s when things can be said (or things can be thrown, like punches or chairs) that you later can’t believe occurred. Know that it can take a minimum of 20 minutes in a setting away from the situation to regain control—and that is if you aren’t using those 20 minutes to fume and think about how unfair the situation is or what a jerk so-and-so is. What can help?

Try square breathing. Slow, deep breathing activates our “rest and digest” system and calms our fight-flight-or-freeze system. To do square breathing, inhale for the count of four, hold your breath for the count of four, exhale for the count of four, and (you guessed it) hold your breath for the count of four. Repeat at least 3 more times.

Another option is exercise. Jog around the block or take a brisk walk. Or simply go to another room and do some jumping jacks or walk around while windmilling your arms. What you are doing here is helping to work off the adrenaline surge that your panic or anger prompted. Activity will help you to calm down more quickly than otherwise.

Finally, you can also work directly on the emotions themselves. Have you ever heard of “Name it to tame it”? Simply put, label your emotions: “This is anger.” When you do this, the blood flow in the brain changes, decreasing in the emotional center and increasing in the verbal center. Your emotional intensity should decrease as well. Now, that’s not to say your anger is gone that quickly. But it can help you regain your control. You can do the same for thoughts. When “I’d like to shut him up!” goes through your mind, you can say to yourself, “That was an angry thought!” You can do even more to regain control by studying your emotions as if you are a scientist. “Oh, I don’t like the way this feels. My jaw is clenched. I notice I’m breathing quickly.” Maybe your emotions are located in a particular part of your body. Maybe they have a shape (such as a ball of anger in your stomach) or even a color. When you get curious and start trying to describe your emotional and physical reactions as if documenting them for science, you’re helping your rational brain regain control.

If you are having trouble staying in the present, perhaps something was said that triggered a memory of a previous traumatic experience, focus on your senses and your surroundings. Press your feet into the ground. Notice the feel of the chair against your legs and behind. What do you hear? What do you see? How many blue things can you see? How many red? And so forth.

If you are someone who likes guided meditations or guided visualizations, you might want to go to Youtube ahead of time and have one picked out and ready to go. Then, you can duck into the bathroom and play the video when you need the calm.

And, finally, you might find it helpful to arrive at your family gathering with a mantra already picked out, something like, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” This mantra would help you remember that you don’t have to get involved in other people’s arguments, issues, etc. Other possible mantras that might help include:

  • I can choose how I behave and I choose to behave calmly.
  • I have control over what I do next and where I focus my attention.
  • I will get through this. I am more resilient than I feel right now.
  • This is temporary.
  • I can do this. I can handle this.
  • I will make choices that contribute to my overall well-being.
  • This is a moment of suffering. Everyone suffers. May I have grace for myself and grace for others.
  • May I give myself the kindness and caring that I need.

I wish you a warm and cozy Thanksgiving filled with laughter and good feelings. Be kind to yourself.

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