Psychology and Relationships

Here are 2 ways to stay calm if you can't avoid family conflict at the Thanksgiving table

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Like most large family get-togethers, Thanksgiving can be as stressful and conflict-ridden as it is cherished.

This is especially true if your family rarely convenes, says Brittany Stewart, a family therapist at Growing Self Counseling & Coaching in Denver, Colorado.

"I think that once we differentiate — we go off to college, we move out —  when we go back home we are back in that place of growing up, back in those formative years," she says. "They bring out those dynamics that maybe feel good in some way and in other ways are triggering." 

If you find Thanksgiving day with your family to be tense, you might want to practice some simple coping mechanisms you can do while you're at the table.

Here are two ways to calm yourself if you can't avoid difficult feelings or conflict at the dinner table.

Box breathing 

It's proven that regulating your breath can decrease stress. Box breathing is one technique to help you stay calm and is done in four steps: 

  1. Exhale for four counts
  2. Hold your breath for four counts
  3. Inhale for four counts
  4. Hold your breath again for four counts

Do this while visualizing drawing a box. 

"You might be sitting at the dinner table and you can just take deep breaths and be visualizing with your brain the box," Stewart says.

54321 grounding 

When you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, scan your environment and try 54321 grounding.

This exercise includes five steps: 

  1. Identify five things you see around you
  2. Identify four things you can touch around you 
  3. Identify three things you hear
  4. Identify two things you can smell
  5. Identify one thing you can taste

This can steady you when your thoughts are racing or you're getting upset. "These are coping skills you can do in your head without anybody noticing," she says. 

If Thanksgiving is consistently traumatic for you, you can also reimagine how you celebrate, Stewart says. Be mindful about how you want to spend your time and where it is most possible to feel safe.

"Maybe that means going to your family and maybe it doesn't," she says. " Maybe it means spending a little time with family and more time with chosen family. I encourage people to think about what they want to feel for themselves and honor that."

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