If you’re like most people, you probably recall your family holidays not only by memorable gifts and heartwarming traditions, but by the snide comments your passiveaggressive mother made on Christmas Eve 1998 or last year’s infamous sisters-in-law brawl that landed your beautiful, basted bird on the dining room floor.
That’s exactly the kind of stress you’d like to avoid this time of year.
But according to Cindy Cooke, psychology professor with the Maricopa County Community College District, facing the people and situations that push your buttons is the secret to a stress-free holiday season.
"A lot of clients come to me just before going home for the holidays, and they say ‘I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go!’ " she says. "I always say to go. It’s a wonderful opportunity to get rid of some stuff. It’s a chance to get healthy."
Discomfort is our biggest clue that we need to stay with a situation rather than run from it, Cooke says. It’s our mind’s way of telling us we need to get rid of the threat to be at peace.
The key to her strategy might lie deep in the brain’s emotional epicenter, the amygdala — two almondshaped structures the size of fingernails.
In his book "The Emotional Brain," Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at the Center for Neural Science at New York University, says that during stressful experiences, the amygdala are bombarded with "electrical and chemical signals that are particularly potent as reinforcers of Pavlovian conditioning."
These emotional memories, as he calls them, are activated each time anything suggestive of the original experience occurs. This raises the heart rate and blood pressure, and the production of stress hormones.
Cooke says failing to address those emotional memories is dangerous to
physical and emotional well-being.
"There is no way around this," she says. "We now know, physiologically, that there is absolutely no way to suppress these feelings and come out on top in the long run."
Surviving family holidays
What: Cindy Cooke, author of "Turmoil to Tranquility," gives a one-hour seminar on beating holiday stress by confronting it head on.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Barnes & Noble, 10500 N. 90th St., Scottsdale
Information: (480) 367-1684 or www.turmoiltotranquility.com