Tips on how to keep your cool with visiting relatives at Christmas time


For some it’s about sleeping in, frenzied shopping trips to overcrowded malls, a food overload and boozy days next to the pool – but for others the festive season is a time of great emotional turmoil.
This is not the case just for the lonely. It’s very often those with relatives who experience the most stress during the festive season.
Forced to spend time with people they may spend the entire year trying to avoid, tensions rise, sometimes heightened by cramped living spaces.
Somatic psychologist and author of The Mindful Body Noa Belling said this is a time that brings its own particular stresses and emotional challenges.
According to Belling, from the guilt of partying too hard to the anxiety of not feeling like we’re “enough”, this highly social time is frequently overwhelming in many different ways.
Pointing out that the connection between the mind and the body is open and two-way, the author highlights simple mindfulness-based physical techniques people can use to shift their minds into better states to help them be more emotionally resilient, present and positively connected to others.
These quick and easy “matter over mind” tips can go a long way to help ease tensions between family members. ● How do you cope with antagonistic family members who bring negative energy to every gathering?
Self-supportive touch can be helpful here. One option is to place a hand over the heart or even just a few fingers on the centre of the chest, perhaps with a deep breath. This can be a tangible reminder to connect with the heart and compassion.
“Touch has the ability to raise oxytocin levels in a matter of seconds, which is our snuggle or cuddle hormone that also conor nects us with feelings of care and nurturing,” she said.
“With this feel-good hormone flowing a bit more inside us to counteract stress hormones, we begin to move away from the reactive fight or flight survival modes that limit our ability to think clearly or see a bigger picture.
“We also open to our ability to think more clearly, creatively and compassionately. From this place, we are more likely to feel good about our decisions, such as whether to confront or back away from the negative person how to ease moments of tension with some wisdom or perhaps humour.”
● How do you open your homes up to relatives, particularly in cramped or small homes, without feeling suffocated?
The calmer one feels in their body and mind, the better equipped they are mentally and physically to deal with the hours of sharing their home with those they might not enjoy. Breathing deeply can help one feel more spacious inside, which can spill over to feeling more peaceful with their outer situation.
“One way to do this is to make a point of checking in with your breathing now and again. If you notice you are holding your breath, which is common with feelings like anxiety or irritation, take three or four deep breaths, which you can do without anyone needing to know.
“A technique called box breathing can be more effective than simply breathing deeply,” she advised.
Box breathing involves breathing in for a count of four, holding for a count of four, breathing out for a count of four and holding for a count of four.
Repeat three or four times until the head feels clearer and the body calmer.
● How to navigate a verbal or physical altercation with a family member while still protecting the emotional bond:
Using the hand-to-the-heart gesture again, which can be done without others realising, can help one come from a more heart-felt, caring place during altercations. It can encourage honesty and sharing of feelings like fear or sadness.
“This is as opposed to shooting off with blaming, shaming or storming out kinds of behaviour that can cause rifts in relationships. Usually if one person can speak from their heart it invites others to do the same,” she said, adding that this gesture, perhaps with a good deep breath, could lead to behaviour that diffuses tensions, protects emotional bonds and promotes heart-to-heart, real, honest connection.
“If a situation is actually or potentially physically harmful, then leave as soon as you can or call for help.
“Safety comes first and if emotional bonds suffer as a result of physical harm, then this might be a necessary price to pay. When you are able to, it might be important to seek professional help to help deal with these kinds of really challenging situations.”
● How does one survive mandatory family festive season gatherings while feeling defensive and hostile because of unresolved tension with a family member?
Pause to use self-supportive touch such as placing a hand or even just a couple of fingers on the chest or over the heart. This can be a tangible reminder of compassion which can be directed as chosen.
● How do family members use the festive season as a way of strengthening or maintaining family bonds?
From board games to shared meals, outdoor activities like sports, picnics or walks in nature, these all create opportunities to connect in meaningful, enjoyable ways.
“This is wonderful for our family bonds. These kinds of activities nourish our nervous system, specifically nourishing the vagus nerve that has been nicknamed our smart and compassionate nerve, giving us better access to our brain and promoting our physical and emotional health too,” she said.
“It has this effect any time we engage with others in heartfelt and also playful ways. We can also build up a reserve of these feel-good experiences that can carry us through more challenging times and give us the energy to start the new year from a restored, happier place. So maximise healthy, fun family time – it is food for your nervous system and your resilience.”..

This article is reserved for DispatchLIVE subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all our content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Already registered on HeraldLIVE, BusinessLIVE, TimesLIVE or SowetanLIVE? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.