Monthly Archives: November 2015

Whenever I’m With You, It’s a Holiday

The holiday season is suddenly upon us! As wonderful as this time of year can be, many people suffer from what has come to be known as “holiday stress.”

According to Merriam-Webster Online, a holiday is “a special day of celebration: a day when most people do not have to work.” Stress is defined as “a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life; something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety.” Technically, stress is any circumstance that threatens – or we believe threatens – us physically or emotionally. So, why on earth are these two terms paired? They seem like they should be polar opposites. We are not working; we are celebrating, and presumably spending time with people we like and/or love. Where is the threat to our well-being?

In large part, it is really about the “extra” things that must be accomplished before the holiday arrives, such as shopping for food, getting gifts, deciding which events one can attend, determining which people to invite to our own events. The sheer volume of decisions that must be made taxes our ability to cope. We often feel like we are just managing – we wish we had a little more time, fewer obligations – and then the holidays near and we feel that we simply cannot put even one more obligation, large or small, on our list.

Ah, and therein lies a big part of the problem. Holidays become obligations and not celebrations. They become things we “have to” do, people we “have to” see/invite, gifts we “have to” buy, even if our finances say we cannot. They become times of tremendous guilt.

Each “school” of psychology would provide a slightly different view of what is happening. The Behaviorists would say we are doing these things because we have been rewarded for them in the past. We make a meal and our guests tell us it is delicious and we are wonderful. We buy a gift and someone says, “I love it” and the praise encourages us to repeat the behavior in the future. A Freudian would say our superego, our conscience, is guiding us and we have frustrated our id who simply wants us to have fun. The Cognitive theorist would say that we are doing these things because we have irrational thoughts, such as “If I do not invite the family, then no one will, and we will lose touch with each other and never be like a real family again” or “I have to get the ‘right’ gift. Gifts are a way of showing someone how much we love them.” The Humanist would say we are far too focused on the “should” and not on the want. “I should invite everyone for dinner”, but the “want” may be “I want to sit and talk to everyone instead of serving”.

Each psychological school would also give us some advice for overcoming – or at least reducing – our stress:

The Behaviorists would tell us to reward others for behaviors we want to see in them. Give them a gift, or food, or any reward when they are doing/saying something you want them to do more often. For example, give them a gift when they have said, “Oh, I’m so happy to see you!” This rewards them for seeing you. (As opposed to giving a gift after they say, “What did you get me?” which rewards them for seeking gifts from you).

Freudians would tell us to examine the conflict between our superego and our id, examine its source from our childhood, and allow our ego (our mediator) to engage in a solution that balances obligations with desires. For example, perhaps when we were children, our id wanted to stay home and play with our toys, but our parents (now embedded in our superego) “forced” us to go out to see family and friends. This early conflict resurfaces as holiday stress, based on the anxiety surrounding the guilt of wanting pleasure (to stay home and do what we want) and the fear of displeasing others (represented as our superego in the form of doing what others ask of us).

Cognitive theorists would tell us, as would Humanists, to examine the scripts (the stories) that are part of our thoughts and shoulds. They would encourage us to examine the source of our stress by examining the assumptions that are inherent in the scripts. This requires a bit more explanation. For example, we think we need to invite everyone, and the script includes doing all the cooking ourselves. This feels overwhelming. The stress increases. (1) Is it a person, place or thing stress? Is it the people? Is it the fact that our home is too small to comfortably fit the growing group? Is it financial? Is it due to time constraints? (2) Recognize that each of these questions indicates a different source of stress and, therefore, has a different solution. (3) Be honest with yourself and others so that the stress can be addressed. If we want to see the people, then other options do present themselves. We can say, “We would love to have everyone over, but (insert your reason), does anyone else want to host this year?”, or “How about we go to a restaurant this year?”, or “How about everyone makes some part of the meal this year?” This can be applied to any aspect of the holiday stressors. We can say similar things about gifts: “I would love to get gifts for everyone, but I can’t this year, so how about we do a Secret Santa?”, or “How about we give the gift of spending time together?”, or “Let’s make gifts this year instead of buying them.” If we are stressed about a negative person who we feel we need to include, the one who seems to criticize everyone and everything, we can invoke what I call the “Thumper Rule”. It comes from the Disney movie, Bambi. Thumper tells us, “If you ain’t got something nice to say, don’t say nothing at all.” It seems like wonderful holiday (actually wonderful everyday) advice to me!

We cannot overlook that for some, the stress of the holidays rests in the fact that the holidays exacerbate their loneliness. The holidays lead them to ask such questions as, “What is wrong with me that I never get invited to parties? Why don’t I have a place to go for dinner?” Again, each theory would give us different advice for handling this. Behaviorists would say you should reward someone for including you. A Freudian would encourage you to examine your childhood issues of abandonment. Cognitive theorists would encourage you to examine those irrational thoughts characterized by extremes such as “never”; it is likely that every adult has been invited to at least one party in their lifetime. The Humanist would encourage you to examine your choices and consider options such as choosing to volunteer at a shelter rather than being alone.

But perhaps the best holiday advice I have ever heard came from my grandmother. Every time I visited her, she would exclaim, “Every time I see you it is a holiday!” Wow, suddenly holiday stress was gone; one did not have to see her on the holiday itself. She made every visit a holiday visit. By doing so, she enriched every moment spent with family, a very valuable lesson indeed.

 Diane Urban, PhD

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Why Worry?

Worry gets a bad name. It is often considered a fault, a personality characteristic to be “fixed” or removed. There are hundreds of quotes that warn us about the uselessness of worry. Psychologists, myself included, help people minimize their worrying and anxiety. The question that haunts me is: If worrying is so bad, why do we all do it? What value does it have? What does it do for us as individuals and as members of the collective of humankind?

One value is that worriers are often very empathetic people: they can put themselves in the place of others, are able to allow themselves the risk of feeling someone else’s pain, they are smart, they are often aware of risks that others do not see, or choose to block out. Worriers allow the rest of us to not worry; they take on that burden for us. We criticize them and then rely on them for the very things we choose not to worry about – having a tissue, a bandage, a pin to hide the fact that we lost a button. We criticize them for worrying about the bigger things too – but when they continue to point out the issues (you know, like worrying if you’ll make your flight in enough time or, even larger, worrying about climate change), eventually they show us the path to a solution to the problem.

Worry, then, has an important human function; it often signals to us that some action is needed. This, I think, is part of the answer. Worry is useful when it results in an action that makes something better. What actions are possible? Actions that change the situation, or actions that change our attitude about the situation. Worry has a bad name because it is connected, in some way, to not being able to control the situation that is worrying us. So, worrying about a potential accident seems useless – until we realize that if we control our actions (wear safe shoes, drive safe cars, be attentive when walking alone), or our attitude (“I do all I can to be safe”), then the worry results in something we can control and something that, therefore, has a value. When worry results in no change of action or attitude, it is a negative trait. When it results in action, I am suggesting that it is (although it’s hard for me to admit) a positive trait.

The idea that worrying is not all bad will be quite a relief for worriers because worriers often suffer. They feel it physically. Their hearts race, their pupils dilate, their perspiration increases, and their digestion stops (they feel it in their stomach – they feel nauseous or feel like they need to defecate). They feel it emotionally, dreading that something awful has happened or will happen. Their worry can reduce their personal happiness. It can impact their relationships. The criticism they receive and the teasing about their anxious state wears them down and separates them from others.

I am proposing that the non-worriers of the world pause for a moment to consider the fact that worry, when it flows from caring and concern, has a value. It can result in useful actions. It is something that can bring people closer together rather than further apart. For that to happen, non-worriers have to hear the issue being presented and respond to the issue – not to the assumptions we make about the worrier or the reason they are worried. This dynamic often comes into play in the interactions between parents and adult children, partly because, no matter how old the children are, and no matter how aware parents are that their children are fully grown, very capable, independent, and self-sufficient adults–for most parents, their children will also always be their babies. For example, an intelligent, young, single woman, very successfully living on her own in NYC, tells her mother that she met a young man online, and she’s made plans to meet him for drinks. The mother and daughter engage in a script that is familiar to both of them. (A script is a mental picture of the behaviors that are expected in a situation). The mother asks for details about him: What’s his name? How old is he? Where does he live? What does he do? Where does he work? Phone number? No matter that the daughter has undoubtedly already discovered and evaluated a great deal of basic information about the young man—the worrying mother thinks, “he could be a serial killer!!” The assumptions the young woman makes during this exchange probably include: (1) my parent doesn’t trust me, (2) my parent thinks I am still a child, (3) my parent is such a nag, (4) my parent is just crazy!!   Such assumptions easily result in frustration, anger, and/or an argument. If the young adult assumes instead that the worry is a sign of love, and realizes that the worry is in part based on real (although, thankfully, rare) dreadful events on the news, then the result can be a very different response. Possibly something like, “I understand your concern, but I have this. I’ll be careful.” If the young adult says, “I love you too, and I’ll text you when I get home” it really changes the conversation. Instead of arguing about how the parent is always nagging or how the young adult is immature or irresponsible, the conversation ends with an emotional connection.

Additionally, couples often consist of a worrier and non-worrier. They also engage in scripts. For example, the non-worrier often tells the worrier that they are being “ridiculous” – there is no cause for concern, they are exaggerating the danger, they are negative and take the joy out of “everything”. The worrier, in turn, finds the non-worrier irresponsible or immature, impulsive, and unable to see the realistic picture. Often, the non-worrier tries to hide their real concerns, thinking if they express any concern at all, it will put the worrier “over the edge.” This script, however, only increases the worry because the worrier finds this “cavalier” attitude cause for concern because it indicates that the non-worrier is making absolutely no effort to control the dangers. The worry increases, the physical reaction to it increases, the emotional reaction increases, making the worrier even more concerned. This, in turn, increases the efforts of the non-worrier to minimize the perceived dangers. This script escalates the problem rather than addresses it. It is much more productive for the non-worrier to acknowledge the concerns brought up, address how they are being handled (making the worrier feel that the dangers are at least somewhat controlled), and end with “I understand your concern, but I have this. I’ll be careful.”

I am not unrealistic. This small change in script is not going to change the entire dynamic between a worrier and a non-worrier. It is not going to eliminate the unpleasant physical reaction to worry. It will not eliminate all annoyance in the non-worrier. But it will change something (and that is the point of worry). It will change the relationship because when the young adult leaves after addressing the worry, the parent is forced to see him/her as “responsible” and “mature” and worried about their own safety and the happiness of the parent. The parent eventually (hopefully) sees less need for worry. It will change a couple’s relationship by helping each partner acknowledge (and hopefully understand) the other’s concern (and lack of concern).

Now for those big worries, like climate change and getting robbed and cars being hacked into while we are driving…well those worries need to result in a change too. We need to listen to these concerns with an appreciation for the importance of worry, the importance of preparedness, and the focus on concern for humankind. If we assume that the worriers have our best interests at heart, the conversation that follows will certainly be a more productive one.

So, to return to my opening question – If worrying is so bad, why do we all do it? What value does it have? What does it do for us as individuals and as members of the collective of humankind? The value of worry is in its potential to move us toward action when action is needed.

Diane Urban, PhD

I can’t change the direction of the wind but I can change the direction of my sails to get to my destination.” ~ Jimmy Dean

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