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A Mentally Healthy 4th of July

By Jennifer Barzey, LCSW

While holidays can be a time of joy and connection, they can also be a source of mixed emotions. Patriotic holidays like the 4th of July are no exception and may bring about added worry over how to navigate challenging conversations with friends and family who hold different beliefs and viewpoints. With deeply divisive issues being debated across the country, getting together on a day that celebrates the nation’s independence may seem like open territory for sparks to fly! So how do we keep the heat on the grill and the fireworks in the sky where they belong?

1. Check In With Yourself

It’s a good idea to spend a little time coming to terms with how you feel about the holiday before engaging in a potentially difficult conversation. This doesn’t mean you have to figure it all out or know exactly where you stand. Checking in with yourself first just means giving yourself the opportunity to notice what feelings already exist within you and explore where they come from.

It is possible you may notice mixed emotions as you reflect on the holiday. You may have happy memories of family gatherings and traditions that bring a sense of warmth and connectedness. If you were not part of a family that celebrated a given holiday, you may remember feeling left out. If holidays were stressful in your household, you may notice anxious feelings. Additionally, as we grow and have more life experience, the meanings attached to holidays can become more complex. This may be especially true of patriotic holidays within the context of a nation that has been divided over politics, supreme court rulings, climate change, COVID, racism, LGBTQ rights and more.

Cognitive dissonance is a term that refers to the mental (and physical) discomfort that occurs when we experience our beliefs and behaviors as being misaligned. In the therapy room, I have noticed an increase in cognitive dissonance around the holidays. I see individuals trying to navigate the desire to maintain social connections and family traditions while feeling emotionally conflicted about celebrating a holiday whose origins they do not agree with. This can lead to stress, anxiety and an internal conflict over whether or not to even participate or celebrate. In order to begin addressing cognitive dissonance, you need to first recognize it exists. This is why checking in with yourself is the first step.

2. Make A Plan

Worry exists to let us know there is a perceived threat and to prompt us towards action. If you are worried about how your 4th of July celebration will go, make a plan. When clients are worried about an upcoming interaction, I help them to come up with 2-3 simple responses that they can “keep in their back pocket”. I then have them practice saying these responses and visualize saying them within the context of the anticipated difficult situation. Examples of respectful responses to hot topics might include “I can tell this is very important to you” or “I can appreciate that you have strong opinions”. Most often, my clients report that by talking it through and practicing the responses ahead of time, their anxiety goes down. In fact, they frequently do not even need to use the prepared responses. This is likely because when our anxiety and stress go down, we are better able to access our thoughts and communication skills. Other strategies to consider in your plan to reduce stress about the holiday might include bringing a support person, having some topics of conversation identified and/or knowing how long you plan to stay.

3. Talk About It (Or Not) And Know When To Walk Away

If you have not spent time with family or friends in a long time, it might be best to focus on shared interests, positive memories and engage in games or light-hearted conversation. However, if the conversation starts turning to difficult or controversial topics, remember to breathe. Approach the conversation with a curious mindset and avoid sarcasm. Remind yourself that the goal of a conversation is about understanding, not winning. Listening and engaging in healthy debate can enhance critical thinking skills, bring about new perspective and promote positive change. That being said, it is also important to know when to end the conversation or walk away. It is perfectly valid to respectfully end a conversation that is becoming toxic or harmful by saying “let’s agree to disagree”. At the end of the day, what’s important is that you did your best to be present and in relationship with others while also remaining true to yourself.

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