If the thought of Christmas conjures up feelings and emotions in you that are less then positive then you are not alone. A survey conducted by the British Association of Anger Management (BAAM) found that:
- more than half of all Brits have family disagreements at Christmas
- 1/4 of all adults said their relationship with their partners came under pressure over the festive period
- calls to Relate go up – up to 59% over Christmas
- the average family have their first argument around 10am on Christmas Day morning
According to BAAM, who will be running a National Anger Awareness Week during the first week of December this year, anger is one of the key emotions felt during the festive period and may be one of the issues not being addressed as fully as it should.
Being angry is a natural feeling and it goes back to our ancestors who may have needed to show increased strength and bravery during threatening situations. When we were angry we were better able to defend ourselves and our families from predators, such as rival tribes or dangerous animals. And we have all heard stories of people doing amazing things in the face of abject adversity, defying the laws of physics.
And in those situations, anger is an appropriate feeling and we are pleased that during threat we operate ‘as if by instinct’ not having to think about what to do. But what about our day to day life, is anger really an appropriate emotion?
Our brain contain three key parts;
- the brain stem (controlling your bodily functions like breathing, your heart beat and so on).
- the primitive brain (also known as the limbic system) which is a part of the brain ruled by emotions (like fear, surprise, happiness and anger). You may also know this as the fight/flight/freeze part of the brain and this part is only concerned about survival. This part reacts FAST and FURIOUSLY.
- the intellectual brain (or your cerebral cortex) which is the much slower acting part of your brain which makes decisions, is rational, logical, problem solves, acts wisely and think things through.
When are are angry and stressed we are mostly operating from our primitive brain which is super quick to react and only operates within the parameters of anger, depression and anxiety. Which is why when we are angry, we do things that seems sensible at the time but which we later come to regret. Cue Christmas Day with you and your extended family gathered in a confined space with some alcohol added and emotions like anger and irritability are likely to kick off like mail in the post.
Compared to our rocket fuelled primitive mind, our much slower intellectual brain often do not stand a chance to interject when we are being taken over by anger or fear. But what if there was a way to hijack the emotional response so that our intellectual mind have the chance to check that the primitive mind has indeed reacted properly. That ‘our beef’ isn’t just fake news?
That anger is not good for us is probably common knowledge by now, raising the heart rate, blood pressure and respiration, injecting our system with stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and so on. And by going down the same angry path we carve the way for more unhelpful behaviour.
So the answer then is a calm mind. Yes, you read it here first. Is that all it takes? Essentially yes. By calming your mind, by being more relaxed, you can access the intellectual brain which is situated in your frontal cortex and makes you wise like Yoda – helping you to come up with creative solutions to situations you are faced with, enabling you to mentally rehearse an outcome which is more to your liking instead of reacting to familiar triggers which takes you down a path of familiar behaviour.
The key is then to catch yourself before your trigger causes behaviour you no longer want. Here are some helpful emergency tools that you can use when faced with situations which in the past has landed you in hot water.
Christmas SOS tool kit
- Number one tip is to remove yourself from the situation first – find an empty room, a bathroom, go for a walk, sit in the car (don’t drive!).
- 7-11 breathing. When away from the trigger situation start breathing deeply and slowly. By breathing in for 7 and out for 11 you are automatically moving into your frontal cortex as your primitive mind can’t cope with sequencing. So you break the reaction pattern. A longer out breath also signals to the parasympathetic nervous system that all is OK. It calms your nerves basically. Do this for at least 5 minutes – longer if you must.
- Posture. Leave the room (use any excuse, bathroom tend to not be questioned). Stand up straight and think of a lovely memory, something that really brings out happy, loving feelings in you and now fully associate with this memory until you can feel the joy. Immerse yourself fully and reach your arms out into a winning V-shaped pose (superman/superwoman anyone?). Winning poses have been proven to stimulate serotonin and dopamine – so why not emulate what champions do if it means you’ll swap your anger for joy.
- Smile. Even if you don’t feel like it. It is only a day and the rest of the year you can do what you want, when you want, so why not just smile. Fake it until you make it. The interesting thing about this is that by smiling we stimulate nerves around the corner of our eye which releases oxytocin – leading to us actually feeling happier. Who knew?
- Avoid drink. I know, it is Christmas and all of that but alcohol lowers your defenses and changes your mood. You are much more likely to end up in arguments when you’ve been drinking than when you are sober and can operate from your intellectual brain.
- Break recurrent and familiar conversations that in the past has lead to arguments. Simply change the subject or make an excuse and move to talk to someone else.
And finally – us human beings have this wonderful capacity to mentally rehearse a situation before it has actually happened. It is unique to us – animals can’t. The visualisation exercise below is a good way to use your rehearsing capacity and you have plenty of time until Christmas Day to practice. Do this daily and create a brand new picture of Christmas Day. Sit or lay down and take some deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth and get into a calm space.
Visualise Christmas Day in your mind and see it going well. Try to be as detailed as you can – see the room, imagine the people, what you are wearing, the smell. See how you are coping so much better with people and situations around you. See how you avoid the normal pitfalls and gracefully navigate conversations and interactions, enjoying the confidence you now have to not fall for bates being offered. See youself going home – feeling proud of yourself for having had a Christmas where you didn’t go down the reactionary route but stayed calm, confident, clear and relaxed.
I wish you a fabulous