Home For The Holidays
by Martin Berenberg, PhD
Home for the holidays. For many, a welcome break from the daily grind of work or
school. They say: “I canʼt wait to get home.” For others, a stressful and often
nightmarish trip. They think: “I canʼt wait til itʼs over.” Members of the second group are
often pushed to the limit of their coping skills, experiencing high levels of anxiety, worry
and/or depression before, during and after their trip home. I’m sure theyʼd like to get
through the visit feeling good (or at least better) about it.
For the purpose of this discussion, Iʼll describe two types of stress – one thatʼs
generated externally (from sources outside oneself) and one thatʼs generated internally
(from within). While itʼs true that in most stressful situations you canʼt control how others act or speak, you CAN influence how they respond to you. And most important, you CAN have more control over how you respond to their words and actions. The first
requires that you respond differently than you usually do when your buttons are pushed. The second requires you to think about and process othersʼ negative words and actions (and your own) differently.
Weʼve all experienced getting bent out of shape (overtly, covertly or both) when
someone close to us, especially a family member, pushes our buttons. When you stop
to think about it, most negative interactions with people weʼre close with are consistent.
We can predict with reasonable certainty that when brother Joe says X, we
automatically say Y, which leads Joe to say Z and roll his eyes, which leads us to say A,
which leads Joe . . . . And so the pattern goes, each time, closely following a predictable
A colleague once made the following observation: “If you always do what youʼve always
done, youʼll always get what youʼve always gotten.” In interactions that cause stress, the
psychotherapist Bill OʼHanlon suggests in his book to “Do One Thing Different” (his
grammar, not mine). By becoming aware of your part in the pattern (i.e., your “scripted”
automatic responses), you can decide to respond differently when your buttons are
pushed. You can then notice whether your new response makes you feel better and
leads to a better response from Joe. If it does, keep doing it. If it doesnʼt, do something
Habits are hard to break, and most people are uncomfortable when patterns are
changed. Donʼt assume that Joe will accept your changed response positively and
graciously. Your new response may throw him off kilter and lead to his tossing out bait to get you back on script. Donʼt be surprised if his words or actions become more ornery. Donʼt bite. If you bite, he wins, and you wind up feeling even more upset.
How we think and process information about our world and the people in it determines
how we feel about them. Negative emotions like anxiety, guilt and depression can often
be traced to how we think and process information. Most negatively charged thinking
also follows a consistent, predictable script. The difference is that these scripts occur
within our minds. OʼHanlonʼs suggestion of doing one thing differently therefore applies
here as well.
We generally think in words, pictures or some combination of both. Instead of asking
yourself WHY you react in certain ways and then berating yourself, shift gears and pay
attention to HOW your thinking stirs things up internally. Most of us have an inner critic
that belittles us and others. Take a moment now and replay in your mind some criticism
from your inner critic . . . . Iʼll bet you paid attention to what the critic said, agreed with
your criticʼs opinion, and began to feel badly. Now, listen again, this time to HOW your
critic is doing its thing. Listen to the attitude and tone of your criticʼs opinion . . . .
Hostile? Demeaning? Sarcastic? Judgmental? This may sound weird, but try it anyway.
Change your inner criticʼs tone and attitude to a softer, kinder, gentler one, and see how
that feels . . . . Practice listening to that inner voice in this new and different way.
Another way we increase stress is by creating a negative scenario for a future event
and then believing that the scene weʼve created in our mind is true. Again, take a
moment and picture a situation you think will be stressful (for example, with a family
member). Pay attention to how this scene makes you feel . . . . Now letʼs change the
script a bit, this time noticing HOW your brain actually presents the scene to you.
Instead of looking at the action in your scene, notice whether the picture itself is in
focus . . . . Iʼll bet the focus of your inner picture is sharp. Our brain generally presents
thoughts in a consistent manner. Its default setting for future stressful situations is often
sharp focus. When we see sharp focus, our brain assumes that the scene is true and
creates an emotion appropriate to the scene, in this case, a negative one. (In fact, most
future scenes logically should be presented out of focus – they havenʼt happened yet.)
Look at the scene again, this time blurring the focus a little. Believe it or not, you can do
this . . . . Iʼll bet the scene is now less believable, therefore less stressful. Practice
focusing on your inner scenes differently, and your responses to these situations will
Assessing yourself and others in certain ways doesnʼt necessarily make your
assessments accurate. Changing patterns and habits is difficult and requires increased
awareness of when and how these patterns occur. Be patient with your learning curve.
Practice doing things differently, and your changes will become more permanent as
negative feelings recede. Travel safely home, and be kind to yourself.
About the Author
Martin Berenberg, PhD is a NYS Licensed Psychologist who earned his doctorate from
Fordham University and had a private practice for over 30 years, specializing in the
treatment of anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder.