How to survive family gatherings and the stress and anxiety they can bring


November 2019

Article by: Theresa Briggs, MSW, LCSW, Clinical Therapist
Amery Hospital & Clinic Behavioral Health Center

For some, family gatherings are a great time – with relatives getting together to catch up and eat, drink a little and be merry.

Then there’s the rest of us. There’s our sister who voted for you-know-who. There’s that uncle who always becomes belligerent by you-know-when. There are our in-laws who never fail to bring up you-know-what. It all adds up to making “the most wonderful time of the year” the most stressful, and you find yourself just feeling terrible.

As a mental health therapist, I have the opportunity to meet with individuals and families who have concerns with stress and anxiety throughout the year. And as family gatherings and the holidays approach, more and more of my patients bring up these concerns in our sessions. Sometimes they’re feeling anxious about an upcoming social event. Other times, it’s what occurred at a past get-together that’s triggering their anxiety.

Many patients tell me they want to steer clear of these gatherings and avoid the holiday season altogether. But dodging social interaction isn’t the answer, since research shows we need healthy relationships to be in good health (and that they’re almost as important to our health as not smoking!). Instead, there’s a different key to having healthy relationships and surviving these gatherings – and that’s learning how to turn conversations around, avoid misunderstandings and communicate in a healthy way.

Even if we originally learned negative communication, we all have the ability to learn healthy communication skills at any age. We just need to be aware of how we communicate and get into the habit of swapping out negative communication skills with positive ones.

Here are 5 things we can all work on that are proven to help turn conversations from hurtful to heartwarming – and the more we practice, the more automatic each of these skills becomes:

1. Watch your body language.

Listeners get more meaning from your body language than from what you are saying – so be sure your nonverbal cues show respect. Notice if your tone of voice is calm or harsh. Pay attention to your facial expression. Are you making eye contact? Are you smiling?

2. Use active listening.

Listening is different from hearing. Hearing is passive. Listening is active. To actively listen, repeat or paraphrase what someone says. Ask questions if you’re not sure what someone means to say.

3. Assume good intent, and seek to understand.

Minimize your assumptions and consider that someone may have a different view point – which is ok! Ask questions for clarity, but don’t interrogate. For example, instead of saying “Did you finish that project?” ask “How is that project going?”

4. Be proactive in preventing and resolving conflicts.

Pay attention to when you sense there may be a difference of opinion, stay calm and think a few moments before you respond or speak. Ask questions without judging an idea or the person. It’s important to get to a place where you both agree on what a problem is. Sometimes the problem will even melt away as you’re getting to this place because there were basic misunderstandings.

5. Be assertive instead of passive-aggressive.

Being passive-aggressive can mean indirectly expressing negative feelings and being uncooperative. You can clearly and directly communicate what you want and believe while still being respectful of the person you’re talking with. The key is striving for truly open collaboration with that person, and being mindful that what you say doesn’t violate their rights as a human being. Enter the conversation with the goal that you’ll both be happy when it ends – even if that means being at peace with agreeing to disagree. For example, instead of saying “We can try, but I doubt it will work”, say “Can we brainstorm some other ways to do this?” When you’re being assertive, you use ‘I’ instead of ‘you’ statements and you share the stage rather than taking it over. You ask the other person for their input, and doing so gives you the chance to provide your input when it’s requested, too.

Feeling anxious or stressed – in social situations or otherwise – is not a character flaw or a sign of weakness. Anxiety can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or occupation and is one of the most common mental health concerns in the United States.

While we don’t always know what causes anxiety*, we do know that it can impact a person’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors and physical health. We also know that practicing healthy communication is one thing that can help us cope with anxiety and make us (and those around us) feel better. This is because these skills help us build up our emotional resilience and ability to bounce back from stress without giving in, giving up or breaking down.

If you’d like help with stress and anxiety, the first step is to talk with your primary care doctor or clinician. Give Amery Hospital & Clinic a call at 715-268-8000 to set up an appointment, and your clinician can then refer you to our Behavioral Health Center for mental health services that fit your needs.

*There are some risk factors associated with anxiety. These include holiday stress, stress due to an illness, a history of trauma, living with other mental health illnesses (such as depression), having family members with anxiety, and drug or alcohol use or misuse. However, anxiety can also affect individuals without any of these risk factors.

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