Thanksgiving is traditionally thought of as a time to unwind, relax and enjoy a festive meal with family. But whether you’re hosting or traveling, spending time with extended family members for the holiday can have its challenges. Prioritizing your mental health should be part of your plan for the day, and will enable you enjoy the time more. Here are our tips and strategies to help you through:
- Emotional Space
Give yourself the time and mental space for your emotions to feel heard, before entering a potentially tense environment. Taking a walk, meditating, practicing controlled breathing, or listening to a favorite music playlist are good examples of easy and practical ways to help you create pre-gathering calm.
- Focus on Gratitude
Thanksgiving is a good time to reflect on what we’re grateful for – from the important people in our lives to something as simple as that first sip of morning coffee. Before you attend your Thanksgiving gathering, take time to think about both the “big” and everyday things you might be taking for granted. Consciously considering them can help you keep a positive, mindful attitude during your family gathering. Sometimes, these gatherings can also create an opportunity for guests to share what they’re grateful for – join in, if you’re comfortable doing so and it feels safe. Celebrating more than the turkey could be a meaningful and affirming experience for everyone. And if you find yourself struggling, even merely silently repeating the words, “I’m focusing on gratitude” can be a soothing tactic.
- Identify a Support Person
Identify a trusted someone ahead of time, who will either be with you during the Thanksgiving gathering or can be accessible by phone. Approach them in advance with your feelings about the day, and ask if they’d be able to help with support during the gathering. Having a support person present can help distract you from a triggering moment, and help change the subject during any awkward conversations. Create a code word to use so they know when you are feeling overwhelmed and may need some help. And if you need to call an off-site support person to help calm you or strategize, simply excuse yourself & temporarily leave the festivities for a more private space.
- Identify Some Coping Skills
The same types of strategies and coping tools you can use to create emotional space before your Thanksgiving gathering can also help you soothe your emotions and anxiety during the day itself. Deep breathing, journaling, listening to a favorite music playlist, taking a walk, playing with the family dog, or spending time with your support person are good ways to find calm and re-center yourself.
- Be Kind to Yourself
Practice self-care by using your “empowering voice” (versus your critical voice) – the one that embodies compassion, mindfulness and self-worth. Fostering compassion for yourself is empowering because it allows you to take ownership of your emotions, body, and mind which can help you feel more balanced and able to manage specific situations.
- Maintain your Health Routine
Especially for gatherings that involve travel or overnights, it’s important to keep to your physical and mental health routines as much as possible. Following your workout regimen, sleep routine, nightly reading, journaling, meditation etc. will help you function better throughout the gathering, which can help you handle stress and problem-solving better. Also, be sure to get enough sleep!
- For Difficult Situations…
Is a relative asking questions you don’t feel comfortable answering? Did a member of the family hit a sore spot and you’re feeling angry or hurt? It’s always a good idea to grant yourself a mental and emotional pause before responding to an uncomfortable question or comment. Reacting in the moment may cause you to say things you don’t mean or might regret. Before responding to what you perceive as snide, disrespectful or generally inappropriate words, a helpful technique is deep diaphragmatic breathing. If you’re at the dinner table, you can practice this while seated, or excuse yourself to the restroom for a few minutes: (1) Place your hand on your abdomen, just above your navel, (2) Inhale through your nose– you should feel your stomach inflate, (3) Hold your breath for three seconds, and exhale slowing through your mouth. This brief but important pause can help you feel more relaxed, and removed from the question / comment, which can help you respond more mindfully. It’s also helpful to have a few conversational topics at the ready (such as “so what’s everyone’s favorite Netflix series this year?”) to help you easily change the subject. Bridges like “that reminds me – I’ve been meaning to (ask / tell) you something”, or changing the focus to another person – including the person you’re talking to can also be effective. Even simply asking “What are your thoughts on the matter?” can be distracting enough to remove you from an uncomfortable situation.
- It’s OK to take a “Time Out”
Mini-breaks during the gathering are a great way to calm and re-center yourself. Enjoy a short walk or chat with your support person, go into another room to decompress, call or text a friend for a few minutes, or simply step outside for a few deep breaths. Especially if you are in a conversation or space that doesn’t feel comfortable, do not hesitate to excuse yourself. It’s important to do what you need to, in order to feel comfortable. Your loved ones will understand.
- Don’t Take Part in Drama
Almost every gathering has someone who stirs things up, some who even potentially create a scene at family gatherings. If the drama comes your way, it’s important to let these people know that you aren’t going to get involved. Sometimes, it’s necessary to consciously accept them for who they are and ignore the behavior if it starts. Accept that you aren’t responsible for their mental health; use deflection tactics to steer conversations in a different direction, and use your coping techniques to deal with these situations.
- Focus on What You Can Control
For Thanksgiving or any gathering with extended family, it’s important to be prepared before you arrive, and to be present once you’re there. Before the gathering, sit down and think about what aspects of the day you can control. And remember – how someone else behaves is not your responsibility, but your reaction is.
From everyone at IntraSpectrum Counseling, we hope you have the opportunity to celebrate Thanksgiving in a way that feels comfortable, safe and affirming. IntraSpectrum Counseling is Chicago’s leading psychotherapy practice dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community, and we strive to provide the highest quality mental health care for multicultural, kink, polyamorous, and intersectional issues. For anyone needing affirming and validating support in their healing, please click here or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.