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Robin Edelstein
Robin Edelstein

Pass the stuffing and turkey, not the political talk

Michigan News 11/22/23

Thanksgiving is a time for loved ones to gather and reconnect, but for some it can be a stressful and anxiety-filled time as families navigate the “minefields” of political and religious conversations.

University of Michigan psychology professor Robin Edelstein offers tips in handling difficult conversations.

How can people deal with the physical and mental stress connected with Thanksgiving, and during the holiday season more generally?

The holiday season often gives us a chance to gather and connect with far-flung family and friends, which can be very nice. It’s also a time when many of us have a break from work and school. But it can also be a stressful season. Many of us are traveling, cooking, hosting, shopping and cleaning. We’re also spending time with folks who we might not see very often and who might not share our opinions about politics or current events.

There are a few strategies that can be helpful for managing stress during the holiday season. One is to try to maintain your regular routine as much as you can; try to exercise, even if it’s just taking a walk first thing in the morning or after dinner. People also tend to eat and drink more during the holidays than they do the rest of the year, which can add to stress.

Another strategy that may be especially fitting this time of year is to focus on what we’re thankful for. There’s a growing body of research, including work done by Professor Amie Gordon here at U-M, suggesting that taking the time to consider what, and especially who, we’re grateful for can make people feel happier and more optimistic about the future. Even better, sharing our appreciation with the people around us can make them feel better, too.

Another way to refocus your energy away from your own holiday stress is to find ways to help others who may be struggling during the holiday season: Spend a few hours volunteering at a local food bank or homeless shelter, donate time or money to organizations that are meaningful to you. Shifting focus away from yourself can be really helpful when you’re feeling down or stressed.

Why do some people feel comfortable sharing their political/religious views with family and friends, knowing that the topics can be polarizing?

I think there are a couple of possibilities here. Some people may have more confidence that others will respond to them in good faith rather than anger. Others might feel like they have the tools to handle any disagreements that could arise. And still others might be a little too optimistic about how those conversations might go; often we assume that our views are shared by others, especially those we’re close to. So we might be surprised to find ourselves in a disagreement and unprepared to handle it. In some cases, people might just have difficulty keeping quiet about topics or events that are really important to them, especially when they’re already stressed or tired.

What suggestions do you have in handling situations when someone doesn’t have a verbal filter?

In these kinds of situations, I think it can be helpful to slow down, take a breath and think about what your goals are: Are you trying to educate someone or change their mind? Stand up for yourself? Keep the conversation moving? In some cases, the holiday dinner table just might not be the best place to achieve all of these goals. If you feel like the conversation might be escalating beyond what you’re comfortable with, it may be more effective to just acknowledge the other person’s perspective (and their right to hold it), note that you disagree and move on.