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5 Ways To Optimize Mental Wellness During Stressful Family Gatherings, With Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT

I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather Stang, author of Mindfulness & Grief, which features yoga, meditation and journaling exercises, as well as inspirational stories to help people cope with life after loss. She’s also the host of the Mindfulness & Grief Podcast. Heather earned a Master’s Degree in Thanatology (death, dying and bereavement) and is […]

Once you see it clearly, a difficult family dynamic may be overcome with compassion and skill.
Once you see it clearly, a difficult family dynamic may be overcome with compassion and skill.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather Stang, author of Mindfulness & Grief, which features yoga, meditation and journaling exercises, as well as inspirational stories to help people cope with life after loss. She’s also the host of the Mindfulness & Grief Podcast. Heather earned a Master’s Degree in Thanatology (death, dying and bereavement) and is a certified yoga therapist who facilitates mindfulness-based grief groups and self-care programs for helping professionals both online and around the country. She is the founder of the Frederick Meditation Center in Maryland.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory?

By the time I was 7, two of my uncles had died, one by suicide and the other from a brain tumor. Both my parents and all four grandparents were grieving, as was I. This early experience of loss, and my desire to reduce suffering in grieving families like my own undoubtedly influences what I do today.

In my 30s I was diagnosed with shingles, the result of the pressure I placed on myself as a young entrepreneur. A wise nurse practitioner told me to try yoga which helped me tremendously. Within a year I sold my web design business and began studying to become a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy practitioner.

The self-knowledge I gained through yoga and meditation illuminated the grieving child still within, and I started volunteering on a suicide prevention hotline to honor my uncle’s memory. That is when I learned about thanatology — the study of death, dying and bereavement. I knew instantly that was my mission; to help people navigate this very natural but painful path of love and loss. One day in class, my professor, thanatologist Dr. Terry Martin, was talking about the physical impact of grief, and I began to consider all the ways that yoga and meditation could help with the physical, emotional, relational, behavioral and spiritual aspects of loss. Within a couple of months, I was running Yoga for Grief groups and was seeing great results.

During my final semester, my step-father died suddenly after surgery. Tending to my own grief and his estate was like having an unwelcome, but very informative, non-credit practicum.

Four years later, Mindfulness & Grief was published, and now I work with several bereavement organizations to support grieving people through workshops, webinars, and weekend seminars. I also teach Mindfulness & Leadership to hospice nurses, physicians, bereavement counselors and other helping professionals, placing a strong emphasis on building resilience and making self-care a personal mandate rather than an elective. This is advice I take myself!

With the holiday season almost over, many people have been visiting and connecting with relatives. While family is important, some of them can be incredibly challenging. How would you define the difference between a difficult dynamic and one that’s unhealthy?

Even the most loving families face difficult dynamics during stressful times — such as financial hardship, grief, or the expectations and demands of the holidays.

First, we must acknowledge that not everyone is even aware that they are in a difficult or unhealthy dynamic.

Once you see it clearly, a difficult family dynamic may be overcome with compassion and skill.

This is not always easy, and there is no guarantee that everyone in your tribe will see eye to eye. But a difficult dynamic has room for you to manage and navigate the difficult situation using healthy coping skills.

An unhealthy dynamic can lead to feelings of shame, blame, self-criticism, and unworthiness. There is a stuck quality to this type of interaction, which may be rooted in codependency or fear. If you feel powerless and paralyzed, there is a good chance the dynamic is unhealthy. This does not mean you are stuck forever, but it does mean you may need to set up stronger boundaries, and/or seek outside help.

Families have a large part to play in our overall mental health. While some members may be champions for wellness, others may trip triggers. What advice would you give about engaging both types of relatives?

If you have people in your family that are champions for wellness, be sure to make them your ally before trouble arises. You can schedule time together to reset your emotional barometer, check in on one another’s mental health, and provide compassionate support if you feel overwhelmed. Meditate together, go for daily walks, or write and share gratitude lists! Spending time with this safe person will build your resilience and positive mental state.

Triggers are tricky, because we are often not aware of just how many we have, especially when we return to our family of origin. Remember, just because you are triggered does not mean you have to react to that trigger. While this may be easier said than done, mindfulness of your body can be especially helpful in breaking the cycle. Here’s how:

  • Get to know what it feels like in your body when you are triggered. Does your stomach churn? Do your fists clench? Jaw tightens? Maybe a lump forms in your throat. Strong emotions are experienced through a combination of thoughts and physical sensations.
  • When you feel triggered, remember that now is your chance to break the cycle! Take a few full breaths, remind yourself that this is temporary, or silently offer kind words to yourself. Of course there will be times where walking away or redirecting the conversation is the most skillful choice.
  • Be patient with yourself. Changing your relationship to these triggers will take time. Each time that you are able to respond mindfully rather than react habitually takes you are one step closer to liberation. Don’t expect perfection, just try your best.

We often hear about “toxic relationships.” Do you believe there is a difference between a toxic family and an unhealthy one? If so, how would you advise someone to handle a toxic family member?

There is certainly a continuum of relationship health. On one end you have a healthy family, full of compassion, love, empowerment, and respect. The other end of the spectrum is toxic, steeped in blame, mistrust, criticism, ill will, and so much more. It can be hard to break out of this cycle, because the toxic relationship is fueled by the very guilt that keeps most of us coming back time and time again.

One way to loosen the grip of a toxic relationship is to explore the concept of compassion, starting with yourself! Track your level of suffering when you are around this person. If their presence is causing you harm, by all means limit your exposure, or don’t visit with them at all. Let yourself off the hook for making someone happy who is not able to be happy at this point in time. You can still send them compassion: “May they be free from suffering as I wish to be free from suffering.” Wishing the best for them does not mean you have to spend time with them.

The only person you have control over is you, and therefore the person you are most responsible to is you. This is not selfish, this is compassion. Not only are you protecting yourself from harm, you are no longer enabling the other person to harm you. In Buddhism this is seen as a good thing, because you are not allowing them to rack up more demerits by treating you poorly. If you have time to practice ahead of time, I can not stress enough how powerful compassion meditation can be when dealing with difficult family members. This will help you build mindfulness of all your relationships, and will be a great tool to carry with you through the holidays and beyond!

Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?

I work with people who are grieving, and it is rare that family dynamics are not challenged. Each person experiences the loss through their lens, based on their relationship with the person, which is very personal. Judgements arise around who is grieving “right” and who is doing it “wrong.” This can cause a lot of conflict. While not all families reconcile or see eye to eye, I find that compassion practice increases their odds. Seeing the situation through another person’s lens helps us feel more connected, even if the view is different from our own.

A client whose sister died by suicide after struggling with alcoholism and depression shared how a compassion practice she learned in the Mindfulness & Grief course helped her defuse a challenging situation during their first Christmas without their sister. Each of the four remaining siblings struggled with feelings of guilt, regret and sadness, causing a very difficult family dynamic. Three of the four siblings felt comforted when they talked about their sister, especially my client, who had made a gift for everyone in honor of the sister. But the fourth sibling didn’t want to talk about her at all. When she opened the gift and saw what it was, she immediately discarded it, literally tossing it aside. My client was heartbroken, not only because her gift was rebuffed, but she wanted to talk about her sister.

Instead of giving in to the urge to lash out, my client was able to say silently to herself, “this hurts.” After tending to her own pain with those words, she was able to see that the other sibling was hurting, too, and was just trying to find her own way to reduce her own suffering by avoiding the memories. She felt compassion, rather than hostility, towards her sibling. This simple reflection defused what could have been a screaming match filled with accusations and blame.

Managing mental health in high stress situations is challenging and although gatherings are only a few times a year, they can make a major impact on overall wellness. What 5 strategies do you suggest using to maintain mental health when faced with an unhealthy family dynamic?

  1. Practice self-kindness, first. Navigating unhealthy family dynamics will not get any easier if you are hard on yourself. Offer yourself a few nice words, such as “This is hard, but I’ve got this,” or “This hurts, and I know I am doing my best.” This will slow down your stress response and put you in a better mind-state. Then you can problem solve instead of react and lash out. Be kind to your body, too. Make sure you get plenty of good sleep, avoid alcohol, and take time out to do self-care activities. Go for a walk, exercise, meditate, or do something creative such as knit, play music, dance or paint.
  2. Practice compassion for others. Everyone in your family wants to be happy and free from suffering. Sure, there may be that one person that seems they want everyone else to be miserable, but if you look at their history and circumstances, you may understand why they are the way they are. This doesn’t mean you have to condone bad behavior, but use this information to decide how you want to relate to them at gatherings (which can include steering clear!)
  3. Practice mindfulness of emotion. Take back your own power by paying attention to physical cues that you have been triggered. Before you react habitually, pause a moment, and give yourself permission to respond from a place of peace, even if that means walking away from conflict, instead of running towards the fire.
  4. Practice saying “no” (or “maybe” or “not right now”). There is so much “doing” during the family gatherings, very few people have time to just be, much less enjoy! This year, remember that just because someone asks you to do something, it doesn’t mean you have to take it on. Short of taking care of those who depend on you for survival, if you aren’t comfortable with the idea of saying “no” to something you don’t want to do, see what it would be like to say “maybe,” or “not right now,” and then really consider what you want to do.
  5. Practice asking for help or support. You don’t actually have to do everything by yourself. Whether it is scheduling a few extra appointments with your therapist to help with your mental wellness, booking a cleaning service the day before the in-laws come to prevent a family squabble, or asking your partner’s sibling to bring the yams so you have one less thing to cook, ask for help. Most people like to lend a hand, but don’t know what to do unless you ask.

What advice would you give to family members who are allies of someone struggling with mental illness at these gatherings? How can they support strong mental health without causing friction with other members of the family?

Allow the person struggling with mental illness to tell you what they need, and actually listen to them. Empower them to speak their truth and say what they need, rather than making assumptions. The reality is that friction will show up at many family gatherings this year and for years to come. The issue isn’t so much how to avoid it, but rather asking the question “how do I want to be when it arises.” Calm. Clear. Kind. That is what I hope to be. Mindfulness can help us navigate conflict from a place of love rather than ego.

What is your favorite mental health quote? Why do you find it so impactful?

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” -Carl Rogers

To me this quote is about seeing yourself for who you truly are, without all of the projections and add-ons that we collect from our interactions with others. It strips us down to our essence. Then we can ask ourselves “is this who I want to be?” Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. Either way, you now have the information you need to help you decide if you want to change, and in what ways.

This principle is at the heart of the Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy style that I practice. It is this attitude of self-acceptance and empowerment that allowed me to decide that I didn’t want to be an angry, stressed out person that blamed everyone else for my troubles. I now do my best to make wise choices that have created this relatively peaceful life I lead. I could not have done that if I was stuck in the cycle of shame and unworthiness for the rest of my life.

If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be? How can people support you in this mission?

Self-compassion is my platform, and I am glad to say that the movement is already underway.

I know from experience that when people are kinder to themselves and can see that we are all more alike than different, the connection that follows is a great healer.

Help me with the mission by practicing self-compassion yourself and sharing it with the people you love!

What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?

Web: http://mindfulnessandgrief.com

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/mindfulgriefquotes/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mindfulnessgrief/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/HeatherStangMA

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/heatherstang/

Thank you this was so inspiring!

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