5 Ways To Stay Calm During A Stressful Family Dinner

Photo: Iain Bagwell/ Getty Images.
This story was originally published on November 26, 2015.

The holidays are full of delicious food, old friends, and all-too-rare chances to catch up with our families. But they can also be totally anxiety-inducing, especially if we feel like we're walking on eggshells around our beloved family members (or like they can't help but treat us like a teenager).

To get some much-needed advice on staying calm in these situations, we turned to meditation expert Lisa Levine, M.S., L.Ac., founder of the Maha Rose Center for Healing in Brooklyn, NY. Here are her tips for keeping our cool — and maybe even squeezing in a bit of meditation — in the face of yet another stressful holiday interaction.

1. Slow it down.
"If we're feeling defensive or stressed out, one of the first things that happens to our bodies is we tighten up and take shallower breaths," says Levine, "which heightens any negative emotional state we're feeling." So, the key is to slowwww everything down by taking deep breaths. This is also important because we often return to our old patterns of knee-jerk reactions when we're around family, but taking a few breaths will give us the space we need to truly respond to what someone is doing rather than just reacting.

2. Find a mantra.
If you feel as if you're sinking into those old patterns, Levine suggests we try the metta meditation. For this you'll (mentally) repeat these phrases: "May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be peaceful." Then, when you're ready, switch to: "May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be peaceful." And finally, try: "May all beings be happy, may all beings be healthy, may all beings be peaceful." The key is to first ask for these gifts for yourself, then for the other people in your life — even if they're not being very nice to you.

"It's a way of lifting yourself above those lower-vibration interactions and really taking the high road in a loving way," says Levine. But if it's just too difficult to wish happiness to that other person who may be extremely annoying or hurtful, just wishing those things for yourself can be enough to make you feel better. "It's like a soothing balm," she says.

It's a way of taking the high road in a loving way.

Lisa Levine
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3. Keep your eye on the pie.
For those moments when you'd rather not get caught up in an argument about Hillary for the thousandth time, try practicing some mindfulness by focusing on other things around you. And don't be afraid to use all your senses. "Instead of getting into it with them, think about how good that pumpkin pie smells," suggests Levine. This approach can also help you focus on whatever positive things are happening around you — the sun is shining in warm through the windows and you've got a full table of beautiful, colorful food (maybe with an extra glass of wine) in front of you — rather than getting caught up in your own head.

4. Be grateful.
"Gratitude goes hand-in-hand with mindfulness," says Levine. And what do you know — that's (ostensibly) why we're all here today, anyway. Once you've noticed the aroma of that pie, remind yourself how thankful you are for it, even if nothing else is going the way you want it to.

For extra effectiveness, try taking a minute to make a list of things you're thankful for ahead of time, maybe when you're waiting for your train or plane home. Then, in the moment, you'll have that list to draw upon. As Levine says, "You'll be armed with gratitude."

We can have a good time whether things are happening the way we want them to or not.

Lisa Levine
5. Laugh it off.
Between wrangling everyone to the dinner table at the same time and trying to make sure you didn't burn the stuffing, a holiday meal can be pretty stressful to coordinate. Especially since something will go wrong — and those high expectations may get the best of you. So Levine suggests taking a play out of the laughter yoga handbook and making ourselves laugh at everything that stresses us out. "You have that choice to cry or laugh or get angry," says Levine, "so choose to laugh at the situation."

It may feel silly at first, but it trains us to rethink our initial reaction — getting way stressed out — when the turkey takes an extra half hour or no one remembered to bring potatoes. "Our intention is to have a good time," she reminds us, "and we can have a good time whether things are happening the way we want them to or not."

That's something to be thankful for, no?
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