Do holiday dinners and get-togethers stress you out? Not everyone grew up in a family where healthy debates around the dinner table were cultivated or enjoyed.
For those who find themselves anxious, overwhelmed, or shut down by those risky and vulnerable mealtime conversations (you know the kind — sex, religion, money, politics, etc.), there are some practical tools that can help manage heightened emotions or discomfort at these holiday get-togethers.
S.T.O.P. is a mnemonic device that’s easy to remember and can help you stay grounded, in the moment.
Marsha Linehan founded this technique for Dialectical Behavior Therapy as a useful skill when noticing uncomfortable emotions.
Here’s how to use the S.T.O.P. mnemonic during your stressful family holiday dinners.
1. Stop and freeze.
Don’t react when your emotions are hot and filled with energy. Don’t let your emotions control you.
2. Take a step back.
You can do this in your mind with some deep breaths or physically by putting space between you and the stressor.
What’s going on inside you and around you? Take in the whole picture to help you decide your best course of action.
4. Proceed mindfully.
Use your mindfulness skills to engage your wisdom in deciding how you want to engage next.
By setting your own positive intentions for these meaningful family get-togethers, you’re doing your part to bring joy, happiness, and cheer to the room as lasting memories are created.
Here are 3 bonus tools to use during holiday dinners and other stressful events.
1. Help steer the conversation.
With some forethought, mental rehearsal, ground rules, and mindfulness, you can take steps to orchestrate the meal, helping reduce some of the sparks that fuel the more heated topics.
Take an assessment of who will be attending and evaluate the preferred seating arrangement to help diversify the conversation.
Through mental rehearsal, you can anticipate some common topics that seem to arise and jot down a few notes on how you might quickly try to steer the conversation to get back on more neutral ground with grace.
Are there some guests who you know to be instigators? Might it be worth the effort to touch base with them ahead of time to kindly remind them of the holiday spirit and encourage them to help keep the group in a joyful headspace?
While boundaries might not need to be set with everyone, a personal one-on-one conversation could help you set some helpful ground rules for the evening.
Prior to joining the guests, take a few moments to breathe deeply. Set your intention for the time together and remind yourself of the tools you have within your control to help you stay engaged and enjoy the holiday.
2. Step away.
Should your efforts to help steer how the conversations go leave your ability to influence, remember that you always have the right to take space and step away.
If you notice that your buttons are being pushed and you’re no longer enjoying the topic, you can kindly excuse yourself to the restroom, kitchen clean up, or to go play with the youngsters.
If it feels safe and welcome to rejoin as the night goes on, you can step back in without feeling the need to explain.
3. Don’t make it about you.
Family disagreements can quickly feel very personal. Pay attention to your boundaries, your ability to engage in mindful grounding and breathing techniques, and the idea that while you might be triggered, the speaker may not in fact be directing their opinions at you.
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If the topic of conversation continues to feel very personal after you’ve had some time and space to think and reflect, try to journal how you’re feeling and how you might want to address your experience with that person, personally, in a one-on-one conversation.
Just because you chose not to address the issue in the heat of the moment doesn’t mean that you can’t revisit it at a better time.
Use these tips to make it through the most drama-filled holiday dinners and other stressful events of the season.
Julie Mayer Norvilas, LMFT, is a Marriage and Family Therapist dedicated to helping cultivate healthy relationships. To learn more, check out her website.