How to cope with a dysfunctional family holiday gathering

 If heading over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house makes you break out into hives, you're not alone.

A 2008 holiday stress poll by the American Psychological Association showed that more than eight out of 10 Americans anticipate stress during the holiday season.

Reuniting with family for the holidays can bring with it a combination of stressors that may be enough to take you right over the edge of insanity: close quarters, cooking massive meals, the crazy uncle that always brings up politics at the dinner table and your black sheep little brother who raves about the joys of atheism and heavy metal. The spirit of this season is supposed to be warm and loving.

How can we help ourselves break the stress cycle and relax so we can actually enjoy our loved ones?

\"There are many more potential stressors around the holiday season,\" Dr. Simon Rego, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center, told CBS News.\"The first step in coping with stress is to raise awareness of what your potential triggers are. If something triggered you last year, it will probably trigger you again this year.\"

Even before we make it to grandma's house, spending large sums of money on gifts or travel, braving traffic and fighting lines at airports can raise stress levels.

The American Automobile Association estimates, a whopping 43.4 million Americans will be traveling this Thanksgiving, with the Wednesday before Thanksgiving being the busiest single day of travel.

\"We sometimes exaggerate stress by the way we interpret things, like being stuck in traffic. Avoid honking, riding the bumper, or screaming at the person in front of you. This only serves to increase your stress,\" Rego advises.

Rego has a few words of wisdom for those of us anticipating a tough time with the family this season:

1. Empower yourself by claiming ownership over your good time. \"Don't falsely attribute your stress to everyone else. You have to own your emotions. It's up to you to manage your reactions to the world,\" says Rego.

2. Take the lead, and play nice. Before negativity can worm it's way into your mind, set the tone by coating your first words with sugar. \"If you're flying all the way home, there has to be something genuinely nice that you like about the people you are traveling to see,\" says Rego. Focusing on what you appreciate about your family can help you build a shield of positivity.

3. Mind the alcohol. Rego says being aware of potential pitfalls can help you avoid them. If you know that drinking makes you less able to control your emotional reactions, limit your cocktails, or try not drinking at all.

4. Be strategic about seating yourself. You've heard the mantra, out of sight out of mind. \"If there's a person around the dinner table that pushes your buttons, choose a different place to sit.\" Sit next to your favorite relative and focus your attention on simply loving that person.

5. Listen to your body. \"You can observe when your body is becoming tense and stress is beginning to manifest in your body. Take a few deep breaths, try some active relaxation, take a break outside and get some space before going back in to join the party,\" Rego advises.

6. When all else fails, disengage. Rego says, \"If you can't switch seats, or the person is yelling across the table at you, choose not to engage them. You don't have to respond to every comment thrown your way.\"

Making small adjustments to your behavior, thoughts and reactions can make all the difference in helping reduce stress.

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