How can I prevent or reduce acute anxiety?
November 8, 2011 1:23 PM   Subscribe

After about one day visiting my family, I get very emotional and remain on the verge of tears for the rest of my visit. Once I've reached this point, talking about anything, even the most mundane, makes me cry. I have never experienced this except with my family. It can last for days. What causes this? What can I do to prevent it? What can I do to recover from it? Can you explain what is happening to me?

My parents, sister and her family (kids are a pre-teen and a teenager), brother and his family (4 kids under age of 6) live in one city and I live far away.

I am very lucky in that I like my family and love them too. We enjoy spending time together. We never argue. I'm able to talk with each of them with no problems. We are able to disagree about things like politics without it getting heated. I make an effort to visit them. Nothing traumatizing has happened to me. I've gone on vacation as an adult with my parents with no problems. All of the children are amazingly well-behaved, polite, fun to be around.

It happened for the first time a few years ago the first Christmas after I got divorced (separated in March, so it wasn't particularly fresh). My brother was putting together a wagon or something – the loud hammering after a full day just put me over the edge and I started to cry. My dad hugged me for a while, very lovingly, but that just made the tears flow more. I held it together for the remainder of my visit, but didn’t fully recover until I got back home. Just thinking about it now, years later, makes my heart rise in my chest, my jaw tighten, and tears start to flow. So strange!

Other than this phenomenon, I hardly every cry. I am not an emotional person. I am generally very level. In case it's relevant, I have an autoimmune disease. I take Synthroid for Hashimoto's thyroiditis, diagnosed when I was a teenager, have my levels tested every 6 months. Also tested positive for the gene for Celiac but endoscopy showed no damage.

I want to dig deeper into this – what causes it? My theories: sleep deprivation, full days, total chaos and commotion, cramped spaces, loud noises, no alone time, being “on” from the time I wake up until the time I go to bed, different values and beliefs than the people I love and respect resulting in subtle disagreements/defensiveness/stress, some sort of more nebulous feeling of underlying judgment or disapproval (whether real or imagined) from people I love and respect, a combination of all of the above? I wish I could make the feeling go away. I love spending time with everyone, but once I get in that state, I can’t enjoy myself. I feel an overwhelming urge to flee.

This last time came out of nowhere when my grandmother described someone as twice-divorced. She's very religious and wasn't being overtly mean - if she were from the south she would probably have added "bless his heart". I tried to defend the guy she was talking about, stating that marriage is difficult and success isn't guaranteed even if both parties are easy-going, but I started choking up and finally just held it together long enough to say goodnight and go to bed. It has been two days, one travel and one back to my normal routine, and I still feel off.

I live in NY, so I'm used to a lot of noise, but maybe there's something about children's piercing screaming and close quarters?
I spent extended time with friends' children, including long weekend visits and even a week of vacation, but have never had a similar reaction. I've googled and it doesn't seem to be a panic attack.

I'm spending 10 days with my family over Christmas. What can I do to avoid this emotional state in the future? How can I prevent it? How can I recover quickly when it happens again? Can you explain what is happening to me?
posted by valeries to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I get exactly like this when I am stressed, and it sounds like family vacations are fun but stressful for you. What helps me is allowing myself as much non-family downtime as I need. If that means I rent a hotel instead of staying at the family home, then so be it. I rent a car. I skip Family Breakfast or whatever.

Is it possible that you are somewhat of an introvert, and continual interaction with your family (although welcome) eventually tires you out? Tired == emotional. You don't have to spend every second with your family - give yourself permission to flee and take a breather. I try to do it before I hit the point of swelling emotion and tears.
posted by muddgirl at 1:32 PM on November 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

There's something about these two statements that doesn't add up:
We never argue. I'm able to talk with each of them with no problems. We are able to disagree about things like politics without it getting heated.

different values and beliefs than the people I love and respect resulting in subtle disagreements/defensiveness/stress, some sort of more nebulous feeling of underlying judgment or disapproval (whether real or imagined) from people I love and respect
You seem to be in a pretty vulnerable position when you visit your family. We all try to get a long during holidays, even repressing years of emotions and what not. Maybe it works for a couple of hours during a family dinner but days? That's tough. Add all of the other elements of stress and I don't thinks it's that odd that you find yourself upset and crying.

Do you really have to spend ten days over Christmas? If so, maybe you could try to go out as much as possible, read a lot, try to socialize in smaller groups, avoid the loudest kids, etc. Maybe you should try meditation?
posted by Foci for Analysis at 1:36 PM on November 8, 2011

Dude, you can love you family and love seeing them and still find they stress the shit out of you. It doesn't make you a bad person. Especially since you're far away --- every time you see them must come with a lot of expectations ("I never get to see these people, brain, so we are having fun, dammit! Share our love right now! Now, I say!")

Give yourself permission to take a break and decompress during these visits. Maybe that's going out for an hour to run an errand and grab a coffee, maybe it's getting up early to take a walk or hit the gym. Whatever works for you --- even if the fam would look askance at you ditching them mid-day, find a way to carve out some time for yourself.
posted by Diablevert at 1:41 PM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

My first thought was that maybe you look up to your family as the ideal of what a family should be. Since you're divorced and not on that same track, things that touch on this idea of the family that you want, or that you think THEY want for you, hit especially hard. Thus your brother doing things for his kids, or your grandma characterizing someone by the number of times they've been divorced, are things that set you off. Just a guess. Could be totally off base.
posted by MsMolly at 1:41 PM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

My guess: you are repressing a lot of emotions in your day to day life. When you visit family, you feel safe and vulnerable enough that they start to well out.
posted by bq at 1:41 PM on November 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

I was struck by these two statements:

It happened for the first time a few years ago the first Christmas after I got divorced

my grandmother described someone as twice-divorced. . . I tried to defend the guy she was talking about, stating that marriage is difficult and success isn't guaranteed even if both parties are easy-going

Is it possible that you have unresolved feelings around your divorce? Do you worry that your family's judging you, or do you feel sad that you're single (unlike your parents, sister, and brother)?
posted by cider at 1:42 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

It stood out to me that your first example was the first holiday after your divorce, and another example was when your grandmother described someone as twice divorced and you felt defensive. Is it possible that a combination of being around family and some unresolved emotional issues surrounding your divorce combine to make you vulnerable?

I have found that sometimes I get most emotional/upset/stressed when I am around the people I feel safe with. I can't tell if you feel truly comfortable and safe with your family or not, but it may be that something subconscious signals you that it is okay to get emotional.

Also, even if there is nothing incredibly traumatizing in your past, sometimes "family of origin" issues can be incredibly powerful, subconscious and emotional. it may be worth exploring with a therapist.
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration at 1:43 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

How exactly close are the "close quarters?" I'm an introvert and the situation you describe would stress me out even aside from some latent disapproval. I routinely bring a book or several magazines with me on long visits to family. Then any time I feel not socially energetic enough to hold up my end of a conversation, I simply wander over to some corner and start to read. If I am lucky, I might be in a recliner and get to nap. Failing that, getting out and taking a walk is good.
posted by markhu at 1:45 PM on November 8, 2011

Could PMS be a factor? The week before my period starts I often find myself crying at the drop of a hat.

Agreed that being around family 24 hours a day, no matter how much you love them, can drive you crazy, especially if you normally need a lot of solitude and quiet. My mother, sister, brother-in-law, and their two very enthusiastic preteen daughters share a house. Recently we’ve started staying at a local bed-and-breakfast when we come to visit, instead of displacing one of the girls from her room. We come over in the morning after breakfast and leave around 10 or 11 PM. Just having a place to retreat to for peace and quiet and privacy makes the visit a lot more fun and much less stressful—both for us and, I think, for them.
posted by tully_monster at 1:45 PM on November 8, 2011

Relationship trauma ruined my holidays last year, half a year at least after the fact.

Seeing happy people doing happy things slammed home exactly what I'd lost.

Tearfulness in the presence of my family or loved ones to me signifies that I have some upwelling of grief or anxiety in me that my subconscious only feels safe acknowledging in the presence of those that know me very well. But generally speaking, my family is no longer my confidant in those most serious matters. So I am stuck between a deep unconscious urge to let it rip because it feels safe with these people and a strong, conscious desire not to talk to those people about those things.

But that's just me. At any rate, you won't be the only one turning their collar up and walking briskly through the holidays.

And I don't know how long you were married, but it is not in anyway exceptional to still be coming to terms with divorce/breakup months or years after the fact.
posted by TheRedArmy at 1:56 PM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

I agree that it might be something to do with the divorce.

I went to a seminar by a psychologist a little while ago that talked about how, once you have had an upsetting thought or experience in a particular context, being in that context again often triggers the same emotions, even when nothing bad is happening. My guess is that after your visit the first Christmas after your divorce, you set up a pattern of crying during your visit that is easily re-triggered.
posted by lollusc at 2:05 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

All my family lives in one town too, and I live far away. I go home to visit usually once a year for a few days. Sometimes when I'm there and I hear stories about all the family dinners and get-togethers and outings I’ve missed, it makes me a little bit sad when realize that my family has this whole daily life together that I’m not a part of anymore. And it doesn’t help that I’ve grown in a different direction than they have since I moved away, so I don’t fit in as naturally as I once did.

Even though I love them and I know they love me and they are tickled shitless when I visit and everyone comes around to see me, I can’t help feeling like a bit of an outsider sometimes. And I have been known to get a bit weepy over it, though usually it doesn’t happen during the actual visit but after I get home and have time to go over things in my head.

So maybe something similar is happening for you? Otherwise I’d bet on what others have said above about feeling out of place among all the seemingly perfect happy families because of your divorce. Or maybe a bit of both.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:46 PM on November 8, 2011

I live far away, and every time I visit I feel like I'm getting kind of, I don't know, watery. Teary, choking up, etc. Last time when I got back to my place, I was a day away from a scheduled doctor's visit, and I mentioned what happened. She tested, and I'm allergic to about fourteen different kinds of pollens and molds that happen there but don't happen here. She says you never lose your sensitivity once it develops. Maybe this contributes? I live at sea level on a desert island, and go back to visit Zone 7b Azalea/Pine/Oak/grass/ragweed/peat/kudzu land.

It's not blatant, or I would have sussed it out for myself. It's kind of subtle and there, but not there. Not like a full-on grab the antihistamine sinus attack. Just watery.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:24 PM on November 8, 2011

You might want to check out the book/theory "The Highly Sensitive Person". Basically some people are more sensitive to stimuli than others and our nervous systems can get all rattled up with what others seems to be not much. I am like this, and if I am tired, in a noisy place, constantly around people, AND in an emotional situation around people I care about whose opinions matter, and maybe from whom I feel slight pressure to be a certain way (family!) I can get emotional very easily.

Try to prepare ahead of time- get lots of sleep and some exercise, do something relaxing and have alone time before and after seeing your family. I don't think it's necessarily that being with your family brings up some huge issues, it just seems you are a bit sensitive and that's fine.
posted by bearette at 6:37 PM on November 8, 2011

It can be hard to try to make sense of this on your own. This is exactly the kind of situation a good therapist can help you figure out, understand, and move on.
posted by exphysicist345 at 8:07 PM on November 8, 2011

Often, when I'm with people I'm close to and can relax around, my emotions come to the surface much easier than they do with people I am not that close with. I still remember how something traumatic happened to me and I could not cry about it until I saw my parents - only then were the tears able to flow. The other thing that makes me over-emotional is lack of sleep. Maybe it's just a 'perfect storm' of circumstances coming together to make you more vulnerable and emotional.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:26 AM on November 9, 2011

You could be getting into something of a feedback loop where you fear feeling this way, try to repress those feelings as they emerge and that, in turn, stokes the feelings (like trying not to laugh at a funeral). I wonder if you might break the loop just by openly acknowledging the feelings--maybe you could even make something of a joke of it with your family? You could tell them that you've been having this reaction and you're not at all sure why before the next time you all get together. Then, if you start feeling the emotions welling up while you're there, instead of actively trying to "hold it together" just say right out "here we go! Here come the waterworks!"

It's possible that taking such an approach would, in the end, make the emotional state less overwhelming and shorter lived.
posted by yoink at 11:52 AM on November 9, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you all for your responses. Sorry I'm so late at following up. Thanks to you all, I got through this visit without tears!

Here are the things I tried:
  • Got enough sleep.
  • Was very gentle with myself.
  • Avoided alcohol (mostly).
  • Went running a few times.
  • Researched yoga classes but didn't end up going (nothing worked with my schedule, but helped to have the option).
  • Made a list of friends to call/Skype - I ended up doing less of this than I planned, but it was reassuring to have it.
  • Talked about my tears tendency and need for alone time with my family - helped to have it out in the open, wasn't trying to shove the feelings down.
  • Let myself be quiet at times even when others were joking around. (I find the endless joking and laughing exhausting).
  • Took a nap/quiet time when needed.
  • Spread out the together time. Since I had 10 days instead of just a weekend, it wasn't ALL-family-ALL-the-time.
So it was a variety of things, but the sleep was key.

Thanks again!
posted by valeries at 2:26 PM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

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