A Handy Self-Care Guide For When Politics Come Up At Thanksgiving

Because no one wants a side of tension with those mashed potatoes.

Thanksgiving is typically associated with comfort food, friends and family. However, given the current political climate, there may be an added guest at the dinner table: Hostility.

Last year, The New York Times reported that some families were cancelling their Thanksgiving plans over their political divides. A recent HuffPost/YouGov poll found that about 40 percent of voters in last year’s presidential election said at least one member of their family voted for a different candidate than they did. Of that group, 40 percent said differing political views have been either a major or minor problem with their family since the 2016 election. Some of those polled are even avoiding family gatherings because of it.

And for those moving forward with their holiday plans, it doesn’t come without negative emotions. Research shows that the election was a significant source of stress for more than half of Americans. Take those anxieties, combine them with awkward conversations with your distant relatives who either voted opposite of you or inherently disagree with you, and it becomes even more difficult to manage.

“Unfortunately, there’s a huge disconnect following [the 2016] election,” Karen Ruskin, a family therapist and author of 10 Seconds To Mental Health, told HuffPost. “And that can affect our well-being.”

It’s important to take care of yourself in contentious situations and keep your stress levels in check for your health. Below are a few expert-backed ways to practice self-care around family members you may disagree with on politics (a glass of wine is optional):

1. Mentally prepare beforehand.

If you’re going to encounter argumentative relatives during the holiday, it’s best to consider all scenarios before they pop up, says relationship psychologist Carl Sheperis, program dean for the College of Social Sciences at the University of Phoenix and and vice chair of the Board of Directors for the National Board of Certified Counselors. He also recommends having a pivot strategy for heated conversations (whether it’s “let’s agree to disagree” or something more pointed).

“It’s a fact of life that people carry different belief systems,” Sheperis told HuffPost. “You should feel free to call it what it is but not get too into the weeds.”

2. Set ground rules.

Sometimes a “no politics” policy is the best approach, Sheperis said. If you know debating something is going to enrage or upset you and you’d rather not discuss it, state it outright at the beginning.

“Remember you have a choice to not have these conversations,” he explained. Something simple as “I want to enjoy our time together, can we keep this discussion off the table?” should suffice.

3. Have a friend on speed dial.

Sheperis also recommends having a trusted ally you can call up should you start to feel upset or overwhelmed. “A confidant can be your booster shot in tough family dynamics,” he said. And science corroborates this advice: Research shows talking to or hanging out with loved ones can reduce stress.

If you don’t want to interrupt a friend, Ruskin suggests making a connection elsewhere, either by playing football with the kids or mingling with a different family member.

4. Try a little gratitude.

“Focus on the other things you’re thankful for ― thinking about those are more productive than ruminating over conflicts,” Sheperis advised. “Whatever you feed gets stronger, so if that’s anger and resentment, you’re more likely to lash out.”

Research shows gratitude is a natural buffer against feeling lonely or isolated and it improves well-being. If you need to think of a few things to appreciate, check out this list.

5. Stay in tune with your body.

If the conversation does steer to politics, check in with yourself. Pay attention for physical signs that you’re distressed, including an increased heartbeat, sweating, tearfulness or holding your breath, Sheperis says.

6. Go for a walk.

There are powerful, mood-boosting benefits to spending a little time outdoors. Research shows a stroll can help abate anger, reduce depressive symptoms and more. If tension gets too high, head out to blow off steam.

7. Focus on what you can control.

So often we forget that we can personally manage our emotions rather than follow or react to them.

“You cannot control what other people do, think or say,” Ruskin explained. “You do however have control over how you respond to those things. If you don’t want to be on the defensive or if you don’t want to be angered by the situation, you have the power to take that action.”

Ultimately, both experts say that it’s critical to keep in mind that each person has their own opinion and that can be difficult to sway. That’s why self care techniques are so important.

Because no one wants a side of tension with those mashed potatoes.

A previous version of this article appeared in November 2016.

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