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Hello Idaho: How to help diffuse holiday stress this year

"2020 is likely to be even more stressful for individuals because of the COVID-19 pandemic and all of the related issues as well as the current political tensions."

BOISE, Idaho — It’s not uncommon to have heated or passionate conversations with our extended families through the holidays. 

But if the conversations are consistently causing stress and tension, something needs to change, mental health specialists say.

Licensed psychiatrist Dr. Julie Wood with Optum Idaho has some suggestions on ways to get through family conflict.

“According to the American Psychological Association, differences of opinion and conflicts are normal and unavoidable, and conflict can even be part of a healthy relationship and developing that relationship, but the holiday gatherings - despite the festive spirit that people hope for - can be triggering as old family rules and dynamics return," Wood said.

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That is true even if extended families gather electronically over Zoom, rather than in person, as has been recommended this year to slow the spread of COVID-19.

"A lot of buried issues can resurface which makes it difficult," Wood said. "2020 is likely to be even more stressful for individuals because of the COVID-19 pandemic and all of the related issues as well as the current political tensions all of us feel.”

It's important to remember, however, that there is a difference between normal conflict or arguments and abusive behavior.

RELATED: CDC recommends Americans don't travel for Thanksgiving amid rise in COVID-19 cases

“Healthy relationships often have conflicts that go unresolved, but parties are able to work through them and agree to disagree without breaking the bonds of love and respect, but sometimes when there is an individual that is repeatedly and deliberately being degrading or physically or verbally aggressive, we look at those patterns of behavior as abuse," she said. "They often use that abuse as a way to control or maintain power over somebody. If you feel you are a victim of abuse then I would encourage you to seek professional help.”

She said everyone can do their part to keep stress levels down and diffuse fighting at gatherings online and in-person this year. 

“You can control your actions, you can’t control the actions of other people, but there are certain things you can do to feel a little bit more in control and a little less stressed," Wood said. "Be realistic – if there’s one individual that year after year asks the same stressful question and puts you on the spot, be prepared for a response. Its also important to practice empathy. When we see others potentially struggling emotionally because certain topics have come up, be empathetic and understanding and that may help soothe the overall tone of the conversation."

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Wood also advised focusing on what is going well at the gathering, and not to be afraid to take a break and step away for a few minutes if you can feel yourself becoming overly stressed. 

"Remember that family gathering time isn’t therapy time, so setting realistic expectations of topics that are acceptable versus topics that you’d rather not have discussed at your house,” she said.

Focusing on your mental health after the holidays - whether that is getting a massage, grabbing lunch with a friend, or even making plans to speak with a therapist - can also help, she said.

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