Jill Merrell of the Merrell Family Foundation, Train the Brain 2019 “Changer Leader” Sponsor, is a mindfulness teacher and advocate for better brain health. She shared with Medium Magazine helpful insight on managing family and friend relationships during the holidays:
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?
Sometimes, relationships can be challenging. I have found that by working on my meditation practice, specifically meditations that focus on loving kindness and gratitude, I am able to avoid allowing someone else’s story to become mine. A person’s story is an internal narrative on how they view themselves and the world around them – an identity. If a person in your family has an identity wrapped in negativity and stress, that relationship can become unhealthy for you. You can get drawn into their story. This can cause you to be unable to appreciate the things you have to be thankful for, and can negatively impact your holiday experience.
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?
Avoid getting caught up in any negative discussion or talk – whether that be around politics, strained family relationships or otherwise. Have a few ideas on positive conversation topics in the back of your mind. That way, if conversation starts to veer toward the negative, you can bring the positive topics up in discussion. This could change the direction of the conversation and avoid any conflict or bad feelings.
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 do believe that there is a difference between unhealthy and toxic relationships. Unhealthy relationships are unbalanced; perhaps one person is giving more than receiving in the relationship and therefore does not feel fulfilled. Toxic relationships, however, are so unpleasant that they can lead to emotional and psychological harm.
If you find yourself around a toxic family member, try to find compassion for what they might be going through. No one wants to live in an unhealthy environment, but perhaps they have fallen into toxic situation or lifestyle that they aren’t even aware of. If they are unaware, they might not have the capacity to take the steps necessary to change their situation. Sometimes, just by listening without judgment or expectations we are able to change the trajectory of our thoughts, and in turn, change the way we react to someone else. This does not mean that we condone or like what our relative is doing, but we should let them know that we still love them and care, which can be a source of comfort to them.
Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?
In my own experience, there are times when you need to remove people from your life. But, when you can’t remove someone because they are part of your family, you have to learn to try viewing things from their perspective. You can overcome any challenge with a loved one by letting go of your ego and just listening. Realize that they are going through things. Try to have an understanding and compassion for what they’re going through.
If you find that their behaviors and actions are causing you great distress, placing appropriate distance between yourself and that person is needed. Always have compassion for your family member, but most importantly, have compassion for yourself.
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?
There are several things you can incorporate into your daily routine to aid you in maintaining peace and calm during the holiday season.
1 – Sleep at least 7 hours a night. Proper sleep is vital to your mental and physical health.
2 – Exercise at least 30 minutes a day. This does not have to be vigorous exercise – get outside and go for a walk or dance to your favorite music!
3 – Manage your stress. I encourage a meditation practice. If you’ve never tried meditation or don’t know where to begin, there are many free meditation apps that you can download to your phone – give it a try! You can also decrease stress by calming your mind in a quiet place; that could be listening to gentle music or quietly reading, for example.
4 – Maintain proper nutrition. It’s easy to get carried away with all of the carb consumption during the holidays, but be sure to incorporate some leafy greens and fresh fruits into your diet!
5 – Stay social. Isolation has a negative impact on your mental health. If being around family during the holidays stresses you out, don’t react by withdrawing into alone time too often. Counter your negative social experiences by making a point to spend time with friends or family members who you enjoy and make you laugh.
These are all things that you can incorporate beyond the holidays to combat stress and maintain your mental health.
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?
The best thing you can do to support someone struggling with mental illness is to treat the situation as you would with any other illness. If your family member had cancer, how would you treat them? Give your family member the dignity, kindness, compassion and respect that they deserve.
What is your favorite mental health quote? Why do you find it so impactful?
I have two favorite quotes: “Do onto others as they’d like you to do onto them,” and the Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Both are so impactful because they speak about acceptance, compassion and understanding.
If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be?
I would inspire a movement to erase the stigma around mental illness and help others recognize that mental and physical health occupy the same body and should be looked at and treated in the same way. Conversation around mental health should be honest and open. Mental health should be promoted to the same degree as physical health in our medical and wellness communities.
How can people support you in this mission?
Help me continue to open the conversation around mental health by talking freely about it! Talk about your mental health in the same way you would discuss a physical ailment. Have compassion for people who are dealing with a mental health issue – we all deal with mental health issues throughout our lives. Connect with me through my family foundation, where we are already part of a movement for mental wellness. Be part of the solution.
What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?
@MerrellFamilyFoundatin on Instagram and Facebook, or visit our website: www.merrellfamilyfoundation.org