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Managing Mental Wellness During Stressful Holiday Times: “Have something special planned for yourself once the holidays are over” with Sarah Thacker

Having something special planned for yourself once the holidays are over will give you something to look forward to. It will also provide something you can focus on in the midst of any frustration or discomfort during the holiday gatherings. Some examples include scheduling a dinner party at home with friends, scheduling a massage, or […]


Having something special planned for yourself once the holidays are over will give you something to look forward to. It will also provide something you can focus on in the midst of any frustration or discomfort during the holiday gatherings. Some examples include scheduling a dinner party at home with friends, scheduling a massage, or taking a weekend away to yourself after the holiday is over. Whatever you do, let it be something you look forward to and are excited about and demonstrates an attempt to care for yourself.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Thacker. Sarah offers an integrative, whole person approach to wellness. She is a licensed therapist, certified EMDR practitioner, certified holistic health coach, certified yoga therapist, board certified art therapist and author. Sarah specializes in supporting women who struggle with emotional eating, eating disorders, body image struggles, anxiety and PTSD.

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

Thank you so much for this opportunity! I have been working in this field since 2002 and I am constantly working to integrate a more wholistic approach. I transitioned to focusing on helping those that struggle with emotional and stress eating in 2012 after becoming a holistic health coach. In 2017, I published the book, Wholistic Food Therapy: A Mindful Approach to Making Peace with Food. I currently live and work in the NYC area.

With the holiday season upon us, many people are 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?

Yes, family dynamics are often challenging in general and the increased stress and pressure of the holiday season can significantly increase the difficulty of these dynamics. A difficult relationship may be indicated by how irritating it is to be around a particular person. However, you can tell if it has become an unhealthy relationship when you feel the dynamics are negatively impacting your health. This means, if the relationship is causing you to sleep poorly, have changes in appetite or eating patterns, and to have pent up stress and uncomfortable feelings related to that person even when you are not around them. Negative dynamics that have become unhealthy may cause an increase in negative thought patterns about yourself or create difficulty within other relationships in your life.

Families have a large part to play in our overall mental health. While some members may be champions for wellness, others may trip triggers. In families where celebrating separately is not an option, what advice would you give about engaging both types of relatives?

When possible, focus your attention on the family members who do not trigger you. At the same time, attempt to limit your attention on and time spent with those who do. Be proactive in removing yourself from being around those that do trigger you and have a plan for how to manage them if you have to be around them or near them. This may include focusing on something you have in common with the person or a positive attribute about them that you can attempt to focus on, so you are not constantly irritated. You can also make sure to not sit near them at the holiday table. Spend as much time as possible with the family members who you enjoy being around and focus on the pleasant feelings it creates to be around those more positive people.

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?

A toxic family member is an unhealthy family member. If you feel that being around certain family members is toxic for you, you can choose to set boundaries. You are only responsible for your life, no one else’s. Being able to take charge of how much toxic energy you allow in or do not allow in from unhealthy relationships is your choice. Sometimes it is best to not be around a toxic family member if you are already upset or if it is just too unhealthy for you to be around them. If you choose to be around them at certain times such as holidays, you can be assertive and tell that person you will not be interacting with them ahead of time. In addition, you can make sure the seating arrangement at the dining table has you seated as far away as possible from that person. Once you make this choice, it is helpful to accept it as a choice and make peace with the decision. This will allow you to not hold on to tension or resentment during the times you are choosing to be around them.

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

I work from a person-centered holistic approach. I help to guide those I work with to find their own choices and decisions. This allows them to create the most comfort and stability within their lives while supporting them through their choices. When someone I am working with is struggling with a difficult or toxic family member, I try to help them process the internal challenges they experience. Often a part of this process is to help them learn to set boundaries. Setting boundaries allows a person to feel more in control of their choices. Generally, the toxic person does not respond well to these boundaries and attempts to sabotage them. I encourage those I work with to remain consistent with their boundaries. This requires courage and hard work even as other uncomfortable feelings might arise. However, when they maintain the boundaries they set, they feel more confident, secure and at peace.

Managing mental health in high stress situations is challenging and although holiday gatherings are only a few days 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. Learn to breathe.

If you can connect with your breath, you can allow your mind to become more still and less anxious. The holiday season by itself can cause stress and heightened anxiety and when you add in difficult family dynamics that can increase those feelings. Learning to breathe properly allows you to naturally calm your nervous system and focus on the present moment, therefore making it more likely that you can make a choice in the moment on how to or how not to respond to the triggers you may experience from difficult or toxic people.

2. Have some positive topics about anything besides politics planned ahead of time.

Politics can be one of the most anxiety producing and stressful topics at any time of the year. During the holidays, political discussion makes its way into family gatherings one way or another. This often causes tension, or worse, a major fight. Having differing political views within families is normal, however, for many this has become far more stressful in recent years. Having other topics prepared to discuss, share and consider can be helpful to have a more pleasant time with family that may have differing political views. If you wait to try to think of something to discuss when you are already anxious, triggered or frustrated it will be far more difficult. Planning ahead is key.

3. Have a plan for how much time you will spend at a gathering.

For many people, spending an entire day or not knowing how long to spend with extended family increases anxiety. Having a pre-determined amount of time that you will spend at a family member’s gathering will help. You can schedule other plans that will begin at a specific time and this will allow you to set a boundary by being proactive. Letting the host know your plans ahead of time will help to minimize potential guilt trips or disappointments.

4. Be prepared for how to deal with guilt trips.

If you set boundaries that you have not set in the past, it may be met with resistance by your family. This can come in the form of a guilt trip, an attempt to make you feel bad for your choices. Guilt is an appropriate emotion if you have actually done something wrong but setting boundaries in order to help ease your anxiety is not doing something wrong! If someone does give you a guilt trip, you can release any uncomfortable emotions through journaling, talking to someone who understands you or by being assertive to the person who may be attempting to make you feel guilty.

5. Have something nice planned for yourself after the holidays are over.

Having something special planned for yourself once the holidays are over will give you something to look forward to. It will also provide something you can focus on in the midst of any frustration or discomfort during the holiday gatherings. Some examples include scheduling a dinner party at home with friends, scheduling a massage, or taking a weekend away to yourself after the holiday is over. Whatever you do, let it be something you look forward to and are excited about and demonstrates an attempt to care for yourself.

Despite trying these new strategies, if you still have increased anxiety and stress during the holiday season, know that you will get better at these strategies with practice!

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?

If you have someone that needs support, ask them what support would be helpful for them. You can help with the seating arrangement so they are not triggered by an adjacent person. It may be supporting positive conversations at the holiday table or helping to steer conversations back to something positive if they go in another direction.

If a difficult family member seems to “enjoy” creating friction, be ready to change the subject or help remove the person you are supporting from the situation. Try to be as diplomatic and as straightforward as possible without being unkind.

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

“Your vision becomes clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens.” Carl Jung

Carl Jung had some very fascinating perspectives on the human condition and consciousness. I really like this quote because it encourages an opportunity to know yourself, to have deep self-awareness and through that awareness, awaken to life in a new way. I believe at our core we are far more alike than we are different and perceived differences are an illusion created by our ego. When you can understand your ego’s aims, insecurities and needs, you can be aware when you are operating from only a space of ego. It is necessary to know yourself deeply in order to have this awareness. Mental wellness is about knowing yourself deeply and completely. This also implies knowing the dark spaces or as Jung called it, our shadow side, and not fearing them. This means you don’t fear your feelings and you don’t fear what others may think about you. This allows you to operate in a space of more inner peace and well-being.

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

Having more integration of wellness into daily life would be a helpful change. Activities such as meditation, mindfulness, journaling, or art creation can allow people to understand their emotional experiences and expand their self-awareness. Emotions are valuable information about our experience of our lives and having an opportunity to experience them rather than masking or numbing them can promote healing.

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

I am on Instagram @wholisticfoodtherapy or Facebook: www.facebook.com/wholisticfoodtherapy. My website is www.wholisticfoodtherapy.com.

Thank you this was so inspiring!

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