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When Family Time Causes Anxiety: Coping with the Holidays (Video)

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Let's face it - family can be so stressful. In the worst cases, difficult, damaged people showing up to spend time with other difficult, damaged people. Perhaps no time of year makes this more evident than the holiday season!

Yet of course, the words “difficult” and “damaged” are just our own judgments, just stories that we tell. We could also say that our families are made up of beautiful, big-hearted, and funny people. But often we need to begin the healing process by acknowledging what’s hard about family life.

christmas depression

That’s why our team member Caroline McGraw recorded this video. We're sharing it because we know that while the holiday season can be a time of joy and togetherness, it can also be filled with anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

This is particularly true if you grew up in a highly dysfunctional or abusive family situation and you're spending a lot of time with your family members. There’s a reason that family-based addiction prevention programs have been so successful; like it or not, we’re all shaped by our family lives.

How to Cope with Family Time

In this video we cover some key truths to remember whenever you’re dealing with family time that has the potential to cause anxiety:

  • You are an adult, so you get to decide how you spend your time.
  • You have the power to question your thoughts, judgments, and limiting beliefs.
  • When you’re spending time with family, you can choose to take practical steps to make that process easier for yourself.

Transcript: When Family Time Causes Anxiety

Today we're going to talk about what to do when family time is a trigger.

We all know that sharing the holiday season can be a time of great joy, togetherness, and festivity. It can also be super distressing, lonely, and triggering. Particularly if you grew up in a really dysfunctional or an abusive family situation and you're spending time with your family members.

A Crash Course In Surviving Family Time

Here are some truths to remember this holiday season. First of all, let's take it back to basics.

1. If you are an adult, you get to decide how you spend your time.

There are relatively few things in this life that you actually truly have to do. Taxes are typically one of them.

Pay your taxes.

Most of our socializing is based around what we choose, and the decisions that we make. We mention this because if you're planning to spend time in a situation that is really, really significantly unhealthy or abusive, it's time to question why you're doing that.

holiday anxiety

You can also check out our Facebook Live video on this question, Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The challenging situation that we focused on for that video was, "If I wouldn't bring an innocent child into this situation, why am I bringing myself? Why am I bringing my own inner child into this situation?"

That's not a cop out, that's not saying, "Never do hard things," or "Never face challenges." It's just saying really think about the kind of situations that you want to be a part of in your life.

All of that aside, say you have decided that you do want to spend time with your family this holiday, and that yeah, every family has some dysfunction, but on balance that you really want to be with the people you love.

Then, hats off to you, that's awesome. Here are some things that you can do to make that easier for yourself, even and especially when you get triggered.

Keeping Your Sanity and Sobriety

2. Learn to work with your emotional triggers.

Practice taking care of you, your mental and emotional health before you go into the situation. Have some tools and support set up. Start the process now.

We have a whole bunch of resources that can help you with this, including our free ebook on healing underlying core issues.

For example, let's say you find yourself feeling really upset because a relative asks you something passive-aggressive like, "Oh, so have you got a job or are you still crashing on your friend's couch?" Just kind of belittling.

If you hear a comment like that, you probably feel it in your stomach, you feel all this shame, you just feel like about two inches tall.

Believe it or not, that's actually a really powerful learning opportunity, even though it doesn't feel like it.

Consider this as a coping strategy:

Take a minute and ask yourself a really important question: "When have I felt this way before?"

When have I felt this particular blend of shame or anxiety, or apprehension?

When have I felt this way before, and more importantly, what's the first time I can remember feeling this way?

coping with holiday stressGo to a quiet place, just sit with that question. What is the first time in my life I remember this specific feeling?

Once you have it, really let yourself feel into that memory again.

It could be from when you were five or six, or seven. You were probably pretty young, and that's an opportunity for you as the adult, to re-parent the younger you that went through that difficult experience.

That's a time to offer yourself compassion, to cry, to rage, to do whatever you need to do to get those feelings out and then just be soothing.

Just be kind: "There, there, I'm here for you. That was hard but we made it through that. I'm here for you now. We're going to work together so that you can go through life and respond differently the next time a trigger comes up."

That's just one example.

Again, we have many more details in our addiction resource page. Ask yourself the question, "What's the first time I can remember feeling this way?" then work to re-parent that younger part of yourself that has struggled and that is suffering.

Working with Judgments and Limiting Beliefs

Another way to come at this trigger question is to work on the mental level, and to work on your limiting beliefs, and start noticing the thoughts that you have around your family.

Journaling is really helpful here.

Get the thoughts on paper.

It's easier to identify them that way. Instead of thinking thoughts like, "My family is so messed up," or "They should be different," or "They always judge me.” Find a hurtful thought.

"My family is so messed up" is usually a good place to start. I find a lot of people have that one. Take that thought and then think about, "Is that really true, and how can I reframe that?"

One possible reframe you can try:  

Instead of thinking, "My family's so messed up, my family's so messed up," over and over - which is a really stressful thought, at least for me.

Think of something like, "My family is teaching me." It's like, "Oh, okay, that feels a lot different than my family's so messed up." It's like, "Yeah, my family may have some issues, but what if my family is teaching me?"

addiction-brain-electricity

The brain really likes to go to work finding answers.

If you ask it different questions, if you ask it a question like, "What is my family teaching me?" It will search to find evidence and find answers for that question.

If I was willing to learn here, what would I be taught?

It could be patience, it could be perseverance, or it could be, "I'm going to learn how to stand up for myself and leave the room when everyone starts yelling and throwing things."

The lesson is yours, but it may be helpful to think about what you can learn.

We Are Our Parents’ Teachers

3. Flip your perspective.

Strategy #3 is a really cool flip.

If one of your stressful thoughts is, "My parents should be different," you can think about, "What if I am my parent's teacher?"

That was something I learned when I went through The Clearing's residential treatment program. It remains one of the most powerful principles and lessons that I learned.

As adults, we're not victims of our parent's dysfunction, we can step it up and we can parent ourselves in the way that we've always wanted to have. In addition, we can model for our parents what health and what true, real loving functional adulthood looks like. We can be our parent's teachers!

It's not their job to parent us anymore, they had their chance. If we're over 18, we're now our own adults. This is our turn to be our own parents and to share a new way of being with the world. Flipping the switch and flipping the responsibility can be really helpful.

What if I'm the parent now?

Practical Tips to Guard Your Sobriety

A couple more practical tips just as we wrap up.

4. Give yourself a way out.

If you are spending a lot of time with family members in situations that you know might be triggering this holiday season, think about really concrete ways to give yourself an out.

For example, you might drive your own car to places so that you can leave when you choose to leave, and you're not at the mercy of other people coming and going. You might stay at a friend's house, or stay at a hotel so that you can have more private space and quiet time, and still have the together time.

You might decide to go to a party for a couple of hours and then book something else right after that, that you need to go to so that you limit the amount of time that you're spending in a situation that you think might be hard for you.

Again, the principle here is that you get to choose how much time that you spend socializing over the holidays and in what way you do it, because you are the grownup. That's right.

5. Keep your sense of humor.

For our final tip, I just want to encourage you to keep a sense of humor.

One of my favorite resources for this is life coach and author Dr. Martha Beck's Dysfunctional Family Bingo, which is just a delightfully funny idea.

She has this blank bingo card and the idea is that you fill in the squares with the common dysfunctions and craziness that you see in your loved ones.

For example, one square might be, "My uncle starts a really inappropriate political conversation," or "My aunt makes something really overly dramatic and she makes it about her and it's not about her," or "My younger sister hooks up with someone inappropriate and brings them to Thanksgiving dinner.

The idea is that you go through your family experience secretly playing bingo, and mentally ticking off the squares.

You can do this with friends, cheering each other on, and competing for who gets bingo first.

The whole point of this, obviously, is to look at it with a lighter heart and with a spirit of, "Oh, I wonder what they'll do next," as opposed to, "Oh, this is so hard, my family should be different, my family's so messed up." 

Christmas family dinner

Summary: Coping With Family Over The Holidays

  1. Remember, as an adult, you get to decide how you spend your time
  2. Learn to work with your emotional triggers
  3. Flip your perspective
  4. Give yourself a way out
  5. Keep your sense of humor.

Closing Comments

I want to wish you good luck, and Godspeed, and all of your family time this holiday season.

Some questions and comments that came up during the broadcast included:

  • Jeff asks, “Are triggers are just excuses?”
    I'll have to think about that one some more. I do see your point … I guess I would say, more of an invitation of, this is something that I need to work with, this is something that is a sore point for me, and if you don't work with it, it can then certainly become an excuse. Yeah, I could see that.
  • Brian says, “Pick up the phone and call someone, no thousand pound phones.”
    Yes, one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, talks about the thousand pound phone. Just pick it up, call someone, reach out and remember that you are not alone.

Family time is a trigger for a lot of people. The thing is, it is what you make it. It can be a great learning opportunity and great time to work with some of your own stuff and come out stronger and braver on the other side.

Download eBook:  Healing Underlying Core Issues

Caroline McGraw

This post was written by Caroline McGraw

In addition to her work as "the voice of The Clearing", Caroline Garnet McGraw writes about trading perfectionism for possibility at A Wish Come Clear. Visit and receive your free Perfectionist Recovery Toolkit today!

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