Maureen Connolly is the Editor-in-Chief of Everyday Health, leading the editorial team at one of the largest consumer health sites with an addressable audience of over 45 million monthly unique users and 70 million registered wellness seekers. Maureen’s mission in leading editorial at Everyday Health is to inspire and enable wellness for their readers who seek the most credible information on how to live well, no matter what your current health challenge is. A seasoned health journalist, content creation executive, published book author, and voice in online health communities, Maureen is passionate about creating content that empowers women and men to own their health and wellbeing.
Connolly is the author of three books. Unbuttoned: Women Open Up About the Pleasures, Pains and Politics of Breastfeeding (Harvard Common Press) was given a starred review from the editors of Publishers Weekly. Her writing has been nominated for an ASME award.
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?
Research shows us that unhealthy families exhibit chronic patterns of negative behavior that impact the members’ overall physical and/or emotional well-being. However, a difficult family dynamic, while also challenging, may not be a chronic issue or have serious consequences.
So, for instance, if you know that “Uncle Bill” each Thanksgiving will be rattling on about his political views that are the complete opposite of yours, and you get upset by it, that can create a difficult dynamic. Whereas an unhealthy family dynamic may involve a sibling who is drinking too much, and can effect themselves and other family members. The drinking may cause the person to become belligerent and/or put others in harm’s way.
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’re lucky enough to be part of a family that is free of members who trigger each other, I want an invite to your Thanksgiving celebration! Here’s the thing:
Past experiences predict a lot about future experiences — meaning, if you know that you can pretty much count on your mother making at least one unpleasant comment — whether it be about your kids or the veggie dish you brought — then why act so caught off guard when it happens?
Remind yourself that while you can’t control what she says, you have full and complete control on how you respond. The second you’re feeling triggered, take a deep breath and remind yourself not to take the bait by becoming defensive or insulted. That two seconds of reclaiming your power might actually allow you to calmly respond in a way that leaves you feeling less vulnerable or hurt.
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?
The closer you allow a toxic family member to get to you — meaning in the emotional sense — the greater the chance of him or her infecting you with their toxicity. Stick a virtual label on them that says “Keep Away-Danger Zone” and you have a better chance of avoiding the harmful effects of a toxic spill.
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. Remind yourself that people are going to show up as they are, meaning dysfunction will likely rear its head at one point or another. Not being surprised by it puts you ahead of the game. A holiday gathering isn’t likely the best time and place to address major family issues — but recognizing opportunities to take things “offline” at a later date, might be a way to move things forward to a healthier place.
2. Tell yourself that this is their stuff not yours. (I like to say in my head, thanks for trying to hand me that lovely gift basket of (judgment, meanness, etc.) but I’m not interested.
3. A lot of families give members labels — e.g. the sensitive one, the opinionated one, the drama queen. I got the “sensitive” label in my family, and boy did my sisters love to call me out on this. Don’t let labels define you. Consider that a label might also be seen as a strength. As I got older I realized that being sensitive is one of my strengths, it helped make me become a better writer, editor and manager.
4. Meditate. Dealing with family can be stressful, if it gets crazy take a deep breath. A survey we did for Everyday Health shows that only 8% of millennials use meditation as a tool to help destress, but doing it actually makes a big difference.
5. Tell yourself that you can only control how you show up and respond in any situation. Leave the rest to everyone else.
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 haven’t experienced the struggles that a family member with mental illness goes through, it’s hard to understand why, for instance, at the last minute they cancel on the holiday plans, or if they do come and are reluctant to socialize with the rest of the family.
People who don’t know how their struggles keep them from being able to do what they want to do — so if you’re one of those who don’t understand, use the circumstances as an opportunity for education.
Ex: Eric really had every intention of being here today. But family gatherings are a big trigger for his social anxiety, which is why he canceled at the last minute.
What is your favorite mental health quote? Why do you find it so impactful?
“There is no way home. Home is the way.” — Thich Nhat Hanh. I LOVE this quote so much. For me, it’s a beautiful reminder of how what we seek — feeling whole and loved — cannot be found outside of us, but rather within us.
If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be? How can people support you in this mission?
Mental illness needs to come out of the closet once and for all. As a society, we need to prioritize access to mental health resources for ALL people of ALL socioeconomic backgrounds. The time from diagnosis to finding a treatment that works is ridiculously long, which means the person and their family members suffer needlessly. It’s not right.
What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?
People can connect with me on Twitter at @ConnollyM.