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Holiday Stress Management

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Turkey with a Side of DBT

The holiday season is upon us, and with that come the common stressors, whether it’s cleaning, cooking, and hosting or packing, traveling and visiting. This year, in particular, Thanksgiving comes on the heels of a tough election. Regardless of whether your candidate won or lost, chances are, somebody at your Thanksgiving table was rooting for the other side. And that can make a meal tense if feelings are not managed carefully.

Enter DBT, which stands for Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Created several decades ago by Dr. Marcia Linehan, this well-researched and widely used branch of psychotherapy deals with emotional regulation, distress tolerance, mindfulness and interpersonal effectiveness. Here’s how it can help us enjoy our turkey without the unnecessary stress this year.

Among other things, DBT teaches us that our interactions usually have three possible priorities. Knowing what you want from an interaction determines how to enter into and maintain a dialogue.

Ask yourself how important is it for you to:

  1. Get what you want?
  2. Keep the relationship?
  3. Maintain your self-respect?

We don’t always get to have all three, but we get to choose at least one.

Pursuing the first goal means being assertive in having your rights respected and your wishes met. This is the objective you are after if your dinner guest insists that anyone who voted for your candidate is ignorant, or uses racial slurs to describe the current President. DBT approach would be to describe what is going on (“You are implying that I am uneducated and uninformed, and you are doing so in front of my children”); express your wish (“Please refrain from using labels that hurt my feelings and are disrespectful to me”); assert yourself (“I would really like it if we could have a civilized discussion about this, or changed the subject”); and reinforce your request by stating why it’s in your guest’s best interest to do so (“We will have a much more pleasant meal and fonder memories of this holiday if we show more respect for each other”). Repeat this as often as necessary until your wish is granted. If it doesn’t work, go to Number 3.

If your top priority is the second goal, you may choose to ignore the comments and explain to your children later why you did so. “Kids, your Grandpa is getting older, and he has very strong opinions. I did not like some of the things he said at dinner tonight, but I prefer to stay peaceful and not argue on those rare occasions when we get to be with each other like this. Sometimes letting a comment go by without a response makes it go away faster and takes power away from the person making it. He is not going to change, and I’d like to get along with the only father I have.”

Finally, if you feel that the person is not likely to stop the behavior you find upsetting, and the relationship is not something you want to preserve or improve, the third goal, self-respect, becomes the most important priority. This is where you may choose to take a stand, debate the subject you feel passionate about or make your opinion known. “You know, Uncle Joe, I find your political views and actions deeply offensive. Normally, people who think the way you do are not welcome in my house. I can’t tolerate the use of racial slurs, from you or anyone else. Please apologize. Otherwise, we’ll be happy to call you a cab.”

Of course, the third example is a bit extreme, but it’s helpful to know the full range of your options before deciding what your next step should be.

Whatever you choose to do, stay mindful and do whatever is the most effective in helping you remain calm and in control of your emotions. DBT has plenty of tips to offer on this, so if you’d like more information or resources, please feel free to contact Olney Psychiatric and Counseling Center.

From this author and the rest of our staff, here’s hoping your turkey is moist, your Grandpa is open-minded and your Uncle Joe has an Uber app on his phone!

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