The holidays can be a cheerful time — with plenty of work, it seems.
But with loads of family smashed into tiny spaces, many find themselves feeling less than jolly. Lashing out is common around the holidays. But Dr. Tammy Lenski, a conflict resolution trainer and author of The Conflict Pivot: Turning Conflict into Peace of Mind, has a few tips for keeping your gathering from turning into a war zone.
1. Stay Well Fed
Lenski’s top tip for keeping calm is fairly simple to achieve in a time of year when food is often abundant. “Don’t let yourself get ‘hangry,’” she says.
“The self-control needed to deal with anger and aggression takes energy and our brains get that energy partly from glucose,” Lenski explains. “If we haven’t eaten properly, low blood sugar makes it harder to deal with confrontations and can cause us to lash out.”
If you find yourself saying something you might regret, take a quick pause and put a bit of food in your mouth. They say silence can be golden, after all.
2. Be Aware of Trigger Stacking
A tip borrowed from the dog-training world, "trigger stacking" is the gradual build-up of anxiety from a series of events. It’s why otherwise mild-mannered dogs unexpectedly bite, Lenski explains.
If you’ve burned the snacks, the kids are running rampant, and your cousin makes a snide remark, it’s possible a meltdown is imminent — especially if you’re working extra hard to keep mum.
“Research has shown that trying to regulate our thoughts and feelings all day saps our willpower, and eventually we run out of it,” Lenski says. “When that happens, we can snap, too, just like a dog.”
Make a mental note of each stressor as it happens, adding it to your mental stack, like a figurative stack of pancakes, Lenski recommends. “When you feel your patience wearing thin and see a fairly large stack in your mind’s eye, it’s time to take a break, get out of the fray, and go do something relaxing and soothing.”
3. Avoid Conflict Hooks
Criticism is hard to swallow because we experience is as an attack on our character. Unfortunately, family gatherings can be a breeding ground for conflict because there are so many ways other people can trigger our “conflict hooks,” which pull them into battle like a barbed-wire fence snagging a sweater, Lenski says.
“We see ourselves as competent, likable, dependable, having good character, and capable of standing on our own two feet,” she explains. But when someone suggests we aren’t, we can get ‘hooked’ by conflict.
But not every slight to our character is intentional — or even necessarily real, she says. “If we have a difficult history with someone, we’re more likely to interpret their comment as a deliberate insult, when the same comment from someone else might not even register on our internal Richter scales,” she says.
Enlist a family member who loves both of you to help put a perceived slight in perspective, Lenski recommends.
4. Don’t Vent
The notion that venting reduces anger is a myth, says Lenski. Venting doesn’t purge anger and aggression; it’s actually more likely to fan the flames she says. Instead, taking a brief break — in silence — can work wonders.
“The venting myth persists because we associate feeling less angry and aggressive with actually being less so,” she says. “Research has shown when you just sit quietly for two minutes after an angering event, without thinking about anything in particular thing to think about, anger and aggression levels decline.”
Lenski suggests trying to diffuse the anger by telling funny family stories — or just go sit quietly in the pantry for few minutes.
“You’ll be better for it,” she says.