How To Cope With A Dysfunctional Family During The Christmas Period

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Christmas is meant to be a time to put aside our differences with family and celebrate the festive season with plenty of delicious food and good conversation. However, it does not always work like that. Many people have toxic or dysfunctional families who can make the holidays a time to endure rather than a time to celebrate.

Studies have shown that happiness in the holidays is improved when focusing on family and spiritual activities.[1] With a dysfunctional family, this happiness can decrease, making it difficult to get through the season.

Despite this, there are ways to cope. Being around toxic family members during the holidays can be a struggle, but there are some handy techniques and plans that you can put in place to combat the worst of what you will face.

Set Boundaries

Dysfunctional families can sometimes have issues with respecting boundaries and avoiding complex topics. However, maintaining these boundaries can make Christmas much easier and more enjoyable for you as they put a hard stop in place for topics or events.

For instance, you may set a firm boundary that you will spend Christmas Day with your family, but not the night. Other boundaries may be based on topics you are and are not willing to broach. For example, if you do not want to discuss your job, setting a boundary that allows you to leave if someone persists on that subject may be beneficial.

Don’t Drink to Cope

A technique that many people employ over the holidays is to drink. Alcohol can act as a social lubricant and dull your ability to care about those snarky comments that your cousin is making about your job, but this can lead to negative results.

Alcohol interferes with our gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) system, which causes us to feel less anxious when we drink.[2] However, when you stop drinking, your GABA spikes to compensate for the loss of alcohol, leaving you feeling more anxious in the long run.

Another negative side effect of alcohol is that it can interrupt our rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This sleep is restorative, with research showing that poor REM sleep is linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety.[3]

If you feel more anxious or unable to be around your family without the assistance of alcohol, there are techniques that you can use to self-soothe and calm yourself. These include:

  • Exercise – Try getting out for a brisk walk if you’re feeling anxious before an event. Exercise releases endorphins, a natural mood-booster that can make you feel a lot better very quickly.
  • Sleep – Who needs an excuse to take a nap? Try sleeping more to feel fully restored and less anxious before dealing with family.
  • Breathing – There is no shortage of evidence that deep breathing techniques can help calm anxiety. Studies have shown that these techniques can reduce anxiety and anger as well as promote relaxation and comfort.[4] Try breathing in for a count of four seconds, holding it for seven, and then slowly exhaling for eight.

Make Plans

Dealing with family over the holidays can make people panic. It can represent a loss of control, especially if you’re back in your parent’s house and living by their rules for a few days. Making plans can help you to avoid this feeling and give back a sense of control.

Take an inventory of the past holiday seasons – what parts were the worst for you? Were there any family members in particular who you couldn’t stomach? How would you want it to go this year? Asking yourself these questions can help you to figure out a plan of what to do this year – you could rally yourself with siblings and cousins to avoid facing certain family members alone. This way, you can deflect painful topics and interactions or shut them down entirely for a calm Christmas.

Part of the plans that you can make could be an exit strategy. If things get too much for you, there is no shame in leaving – your mental health comes first. When making an exit plan, consider:

  • Can you get a hotel or stay with a friend for the night?
  • Do you have a car to get away?
  • Is public transport running?

You don’t have to endure a family Christmas if it gets to be too much. You have every right to leave if your family becomes abusive or too toxic to handle.

Conclusion

Christmas often isn’t all it’s made out to be. The idyllic scenes we see in movies and books are fictionalised, and in real life, it isn’t perfect. Families fight, but you don’t have to be around a toxic family who damages your mental health. These techniques can help you to handle the holidays and protect your mental health as much as possible.

If you have a client or know of someone struggling to heal from vicarious trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).

Sources:

[1] Kasser, Tim, and Kennon M. Sheldon. “What makes for a merry Christmas?.” Journal of happiness studies 3.4 (2002): 313-329.

[2] Ngo, Dai-Hung, and Thanh Sang Vo. “An Updated Review On Pharmaceutical Properties Of Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid”. Molecules, vol 24, no. 15, 2019, p. 2678. MDPI AG, doi:10.3390/molecules24152678. Accessed 22 Nov 2021.

[3] Wassing, Rick et al. “Slow Dissolving Of Emotional Distress Contributes To Hyperarousal”. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, vol 113, no. 9, 2016, pp. 2538-2543. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, doi:10.1073/pnas.1522520113. Accessed 22 Nov 2021.

[4] Zaccaro, Andrea et al. “How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review On Psycho-Physiological Correlates Of Slow Breathing”. Frontiers In Human Neuroscience, vol 12, 2018. Frontiers Media SA, doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353. Accessed 22 Nov 2021.

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