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Weathering the Holidays

W. Michael Nelson III, a professor in the department of psychology, discusses tension during the holidays and how to overcome it.

Why do you think that holidays bring out hostility and stress in people? Are some people more susceptible to this than others? Many people report an increase in distress, anger and upset over the holidays when they contrast what they perceive as the happiness and joy of others to their own lives where they feel lacking in something, such as a loving relationship, close family, strong friendships or financial stability. Certain individuals tend to be more vulnerable to distress, upset and anger around the holidays than others. Some individuals and their families have a “long history” of disagreements and conflicts. Others may be going through a more acutely trying time in their lives, and become more easily agitated and upset as they attempt to cope with such stressors—e.g., breakup of a friendship or romance, divorce or family separation, death of a loved one, academic problems, or financial stress. All of us also characteristically react to such stress in idiosyncratic ways. In other words, some may deal with such stress by becoming sad or depressed, others anxious and nervous, and still others angry and hostile.

What are some tips that you have for people who are gathering with a family member that they are not on great terms with? Conflicts and hassles are a “normal part of life” and are inherent in being part of a family. In other words, family disagreements and turmoil are often perfectly “normal.” Despite this, some individuals dread having to spend time with others with whom they have not been on amicable terms. They anticipate problems and conflicts. This attitude often results in a self-fulfilling prophecy when they encounter the problematic others. The first tip in “making the best of the holidays” is to focus on your own attitude and expectations. Recognize any hostile intent on your part and make a commitment to “take the high road” in interacting with those with whom you have had significant disagreements. Epitictus, an ancient Greek philosopher, said that “people are more effected by the view they take of things than by the things themselves”. For those interested in Oriental thought, one such philosopher noted “that the birds of worry and care fly above your head, this you cannot change; but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.” These two similar philosophies suggest that although we may not have any control over what others say or how they act towards us, we do have much more control over how we feel and subsequently how we react towards them. The trick is to develop a positive or “high road” attitude in dealing with others and not to become upset even if things do not work out exactly the way in which we would like.

If confrontation occurs unexpectedly, what should one do? The best advice is to “be prepared” and develop a game plan based on the taking the “high road” philosophy even if others don’t respond favorably to our conciliatory overtures. If sufficiently prepared, we can become much more astute in recognizing when confrontations are brewing and can better “side step” such issues before they erupt. Sometimes, even with the best attempts at anticipating problems, confrontations can occur rather unexpectedly. When this happens, the first step is to inhibit the “knee-jerk” response of striking back in a fashion that will intensify and further inflame the confrontation. Again, keep in mind that we are actually more in control of our own feelings and reactions than we think, and that it “takes two to tango” (or argue/fight). It is very difficult to fight with someone who is committed not to do so. Remember that if things do not work out exactly the way we would like, acceptance of the other individual and “patting yourself on the back” for attempting to side step or better deal with the situation can be helpful. Remember, it is not really terrible or catastrophic if others do not treat us in a way that we would like. And, it is in our power to “rise above” and make the best of even the most problematic situation.

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