Family life in the 21st century is best demonstrated by the holiday family gathering. There’s nothing in the world as unique and yet predictable, as a dysfunctional family thrown together in close quarters for a designated amount of time. The cult classic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation was not that far of a stretch from reality.

However, it is really all about the science. Stressful events can trigger an amygdala attack. The amygdala is a set of small, almond-shaped clusters of nuclei near the base of your brain. These almond-shaped clusters are the most active when you experience fear or aggression, due to the fact that they are responsible for triggering the body’s fight or flight response. Anxiety and panic attacks occur when environmental or emotional stressors convince your amygdala that you are in danger.

The most conditioned and emotionally mature individual can lose all reason and tolerance within minutes of grandmother in one hear and the “always gonna be better than you” sister in the other – thus resulting in fight or flight. For many people, family gatherings require complex strategies for staying out of such situations. There are several ways to manage, reduce and/or avoid the drama using psychology (science) to fight science.

Be realistic

Most of us go home for the holidays wishing our families would cease and desist from all the things that affect us emotionally like fingernails on a chalkboard do physically. Things would certainly go better if our relatives would listen openly, communicate honestly, and agree with us on all significant issues. But those are impossible expectations and we need to just stop. Stop building up hope that this time will be different. Hoping for the impossible sets us up for disappointment. We want to take steps for success.

Be prepared

Boundaries are a great thing. Establish firm timelines of engagement. No, this isn’t warfare but it does require strategic thinking. How much time and intimacy with your family is enough? How much is too much? It is important to answer these questions prior to arriving.

Be you

Any attempt you make to control other people actually puts you under their control. The only way you can avoid getting stuck in other people’s craziness is to disconnect from their systems by refusing to try to control them. Don’t violate your own code of values and ethics, but don’t waste energy trying to make other people violate theirs. Especially in the political climate we are currently in, it is important to feel what you feel, know what you know, and let your relatives free to do the same.

Remember that you and only you have the ability to respond to injury by seeking cures instead of furthering pain. This doesn’t mean you have to take responsibility for whatever wound may have been inflicted. But, accepting that you can control only your own thoughts and actions will help you mend more quickly and thoroughly.

Let’s recap this little strategy classification.

  • Establish reasonable expectations.

  • Set boundaries prior to arriving.

  • Know what you can control.

These may not have been needed in the Norman Rockwell era, but strong personalities, strong emotions and holiday pressure can be the perfect storm for chaos. Hopefully you will emerge from these holidays a little more in control.

Melody K. Smith

Sponsored by Access Innovations, the world leader in thesaurus, ontology, and taxonomy creation and metadata application.