5 Ways To Optimize Mental Wellness During Stressful Family Gatherings With Tonja Dodd

I had the pleasure of interviewing Tonja Dodd, Senior Health Strategy Analyst for Vitality Group. Passionate about health and well-being, Tonja has dedicated her work to enhancing consumer health, disease prevention and improving the health of populations. At Vitality Group, she creates health engagement strategies and content that contribute to the strategic planning, innovation, design, […]

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I had the pleasure of interviewing Tonja Dodd, Senior Health Strategy Analyst for Vitality Group. Passionate about health and well-being, Tonja has dedicated her work to enhancing consumer health, disease prevention and improving the health of populations. At Vitality Group, she creates health engagement strategies and content that contribute to the strategic planning, innovation, design, product development and marketing functions. She has worked for health insurance and wellness companies as well as non-profit and government agencies and holds a Master of Public Health in health promotion and education from the University of South Carolina and a Bachelor of Science in health education with focus on corporate fitness, from Penn State.

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

My career path has included residing in seven states over 25 years where I have had the pleasure of meeting many dear colleagues, friends and my husband — and have learned that we are all most interested in the wellness of our own families and circle of friends. During my career, I have designed and delivered a variety of health and wellness counseling, coaching, education, communication and promotion programs. And no matter what setting, the focus of my work continues to be centered on helping individuals meet their behavior change goals for better health and well-being while providing them with intrapersonal and contextual support and credible resources.

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?

A difficult family situation is more common than you think and is one that can usually be resolved or gracefully dealt with. However, an unhealthy family dynamic is one that leaves one or all individuals involved in turmoil. For example, if interaction with one person or a specific subject always ends up with shouting, storming off or crying and this continues to happen, it is likely unhealthy.

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?

Think about fun times your family has had together. Try to stay on common ground that is neutral and won’t incite anyone. And do talk to family members who are champions of wellness about their wellness journey and perhaps all will be inspired.

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?

I don’t believe there is a difference between an “unhealthy” or “toxic” family as individuals can and do change often based on the stress in their own lives. Sometimes people may act more or less “toxic” based on their current situation.

 Family members who act in an “unhealthy” or “toxic” manner are often argumentative, contradictory or controlling and seem angry at life. The best way to handle them is to stay calm. 

If you stay calm and do not “feed” their anger or cynicism the person is likely to back down and move on to something else.

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

I once worked with a client whose father seemed to always look for an argument and contradict everything. I helped the client by working on practicing reflective listening. Instead of arguing back, simply reflecting what his father said and validating his father’s thoughts and feelings. And after doing that several times, the client was able to then bring up a fun memory the two shared. We also worked on finding a common activity where the two could spend quality time on a regular basis so that the father would feel more included in my client’s life. He softened his feelings of irritability and his argumentative attitude.

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?

Prepare yourself. Take good care of yourself and practice stress relief techniques regularly to build your resilience to stress and challenging situations. You can take good care of yourself by exercising regularly and prioritizing sleep. Regular exercise or physical activity releases feel-good chemicals in your brain that can help you perform better, concentrate more and boost your overall mood and it can have a profoundly positive impact on symptoms of depression, anxiety and more. It is recommended that adults aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Create a regular bedtime routine and sleep schedule, disconnect from screens, and make your bedroom comfortable to achieve the amount that is right for you.

Meditation helps the mind and body to relax and focus, improves improving psychological balance and enhances overall health and well-being — it is an easy and effective technique to learn in building resilience and prepare for challenging situations like family gatherings. It typically has four elements: a quiet location with as few distractions as possible; a specific, comfortable posture like sitting, lying down or walking; a focus of attention on a specially chosen word or set of words, an object, or the sensations of the breath; and an open attitude, letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them.

Avoid counterproductive behaviors while at family gatherings to maintain your cool and mental health — especially avoid excessive drinking. Drinking too much may cause you to get angry more quickly and will lower inhibitions so your “filter” isn’t working; and you may find you regret what you said or regret your actions if you drink in excess at family gatherings.

Stay calm. It may sound easier said than done but with practice and determination you can stay calm during stressful situations. You can stay calm by being mindful of the moment. Pay close attention to your conversations, bring awareness to your senses, and don’t mull over yesterday’s or last year’s conflict. Mindfulness is an activity you can learn and participate in at any time and is proven to relax your body, lower stress levels and decrease feelings of anxiety and depression.

Finally, when faced with challenging family dynamics, do your best to communicate effectively. Be understanding and respectful — this is your family, be respectful and understanding, no one is perfect. We all come from different perspectives, different generations, cultural backgrounds and geographical regions so doing your best to stay calm and be thoughtful about what you say, how you say it and the body language you present will go a long way during those stressful encounters. You can also agree to disagree and let it go — if you find things are heating up, ask to discuss another time or re-direct the conversation to something you do have in common or reminisce about good times or a funny antic that a grandparent, uncle or cousin once did. It may help to practice a few phrases ahead of time that you might say to calm a situation or redirect a person or conversation.

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?

Mental health is thankfully becoming less taboo to talk about and so I have found looking to the experts for advice and sharing that advice with as many as you can is a good way to support others with mental health issues.

 From illness like postpartum depression, PTSD, suicide, schizophrenia and drug abuse as well as disorders like ADD and autism spectrum disorders, there is a great deal of credible information that can be shared.

 Often suggesting a website or passing out an article from a blog post or news source can help family members who are not experiencing the issue themselves so that they may gain a better understanding. The National Institute on Mental Health has many great resources on mental illness and mental disorders: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/index.shtml while the Mental Health America agency also has information and resources for the everyday person: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/.

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

“There is no wi-fi in the forest, but I promise you will find a better connection.”

I am a big proponent of finding peace and being active for better mental health — and most of us are missing that connection with the natural world which can provide peace and an opportunity to be physically active. Many studies have shown that feelings of anxiety and depression as well as other mental health issues can be ameliorated through disconnecting now and then from technology, taking a break in general, getting out in nature, and being physically active. This quote reminds us to take a break from the world we live in today and to take time to find that peace when connecting with the earth and the natural cycle of life, instead of digital screens; and this quote promotes being physically active vs. being sedentary.

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

To promote mental wellness, take care of your mind and your body so that when you face life’s challenges you are prepared to cope with them peacefully and in a healthy manner. Individuals can practice behaviors that support this movement by building resilience to stress through healthy eating, regular exercise and prioritizing sleep; practicing stress relief techniques like meditation; avoiding counterproductive behaviors like excessive drinking and/or use of social media/screen time; practicing calmness and mindfulness; and using effective communication to address conflict and communicate personal needs. All these behaviors prepare us for coping with life well and promotes mental wellness.

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


Thank you this was so inspiring!

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