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Home for the Holidays

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Home For The Holidays

by Martin Berenberg, PhDHolidays (1)

 

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. Im 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

script.

 

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

differently.

 

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

change.

 

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.

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