This time of year I notice a lot of worry among my clients – worrying about Christmas can actually start as early as September, so by December it becomes a bit of an epidemic. People are imagining a whole host of difficult scenarios: the relatives who descend en masse and don’t make much of a contribution; the men fighting over who gets to manage the turkey; the children feeling short-changed because their friends got more presents; Auntie spending the whole time moaning; your husband falling out with your mother; the possibility that your marriage will crack under the strain.
The thing is that though some of these things may happen, we don’t know what will happen until it does. The only thing we achieve by worrying is to increase the suffering we experience in the run-up to Christmas. And if we’ve exhausted ourselves with worry beforehand, we have less energy to deal with any problems that do come up.
Imagination is not just for Santa Claus
Persistent worrying can turn into an uncomfortable habit that’s so hard to shake off that we even worry when we have nothing to worry about! But in every case, when we worry we are imagining a future scenario that may or may not happen. You could even describe worrying as a misuse of the imagination. And imagination is not just ‘all in your head’. It has measurable, palpable effects, both physical and behavioural.
In fact all our experience is in a way imagined. The brain is constantly constructing a model of the world and then comparing it with the data coming in through our senses. But sometimes we don’t take an unbiased view, and filter selectively for the data which fits the model. I think we’re often aware of this in others, but not so much in ourselves.
And because of this process of model construction, the mind – the brain – does not readily distinguish between real and imagined. If you work hard enough at imagining a lemon – the visual image of a lemon, the sound of the knife slicing into the lemon, the smell of the rind and the juice, and the taste of lemon juice on your fingers – you will start to salivate (try it out now!). So it is for the bigger things, the things we worry about, because when we worry we use our imagination. And instead of triggering salivation, those imagined worries trigger the release of adrenalin and cortisol and the firing up of the body’s stress response.
On the other hand it is possible to imagine something wonderful and to trigger the release of “happy hormones.” The common denominator is the imagination and whether we use it constructively or destructively.
So what’s all this got to do with having a peaceful Christmas?
Given that worrying is a misuse of the imagination, it makes sense to find an alternative use for the imagination which will help to keep us calm and peaceful – and maybe keep the peace over the Christmas holidays as well
Here are four powerful tips to keep you calm for Christmas:
1. Get distance from the worries
I often talk about how we are capable of imagining absolutely anything, but whether we buy in to what we imagine is another matter altogether. Stephen King uses his imagination to create terrifying scenarios, but he produces all these frightening stories without being scared witless by them himself. He can clearly separate himself from what he is imagining.
Advice ‘not to think about it’ is totally useless. If I ask you not to think about a Christmas tree riding on the back of a donkey, you’ll find it very difficult to drive the image from your mind. In fact worries come and go unbidden. Most people don’t sit down with the intention of worrying about things – it just happens. However when those worries pop into your mind you can add an extra dimension to the story. Just recognise that it is a story, and that you are the story-teller. If you focus on your breathing for a few moments and then remind yourself that this worry is just a story you are telling yourself about what might happen in the future, then it will start to lose its power.
2. Organize the worries
Sometimes it can be difficult to get that distance, so there are other approaches you can use. There’s nothing like a timetable for bringing things under control. Worry tends to be intrusive, gate-crashing your head when you’re trying to enjoy yourself or concentrate on something. When this happens you can prescribe yourself ‘worry time’. And as these are Christmas-related worries, you might want to call it Christmas Worry Time.
Select a specific time of day to sit down and do nothing but worry for a set period – no longer than 20 minutes. Put this time in your diary. When a troublesome thought occurs, say to yourself “Okay – there’s a worrying thought. I’ll worry about that in my ‘worry time’, not now.” If you like you can write the worry down on a list, just in case you find that you forgot what it was. This has an interesting side-effect: When you have to do the worrying for that 20 minute period, it gets harder and harder to do, transforming itself from something that you can’t help doing to something that’s a real nuisance to keep up. In fact you might find yourself procrastinating the worry time.
3. Write down solution steps
Worrying that doesn’t lead anywhere is like a dog chasing its tail. We find ourselves going round and round in circles, going nowhere. But this unfortunately leaves a lot of loose ends and leads to over-dreaming. When the brain has loose ends to tie up, it does so during dreaming, and the more loose ends there are, the more it dreams. And when you’re over-dreaming you cut short the time spent in deep sleep. Which is bad for your mental and physical health and interferes with the brain’s drainage system.
It’s been shown that writing about emotional issues lowers stress hormone levels, perhaps because writing requires us to use other (less emotional) parts of the brain. But to be really effective, writing needs to be more than just venting. So here’s a practical writing technique to turn worries into solutions:
- List – write down, exactly and clearly, just what you are worred about, making as full a list as possible
- Separate – mark each item on the list as ‘solvable’ or ‘unsolvable’ (for example, worries about situations that you have no control over or concerns over things that happened in the past)
- Steps – copy all the ‘solvable’ items into a single column on one side of a page. Next to each item, write some practical steps that can be taken towards ‘fixing’ that problem.
- Resolve – copy all the ‘unsolvable’ items into a single column on one side of another page. Beside each item, describe how you would need to see the problem differently in order to resolve the worry (for example, “I need to accept that Mum and Aunt Jane will never be the best of friends”).
4. Throw your worries away
Writing down bad memories, sealing the paper in an envelope, and then throwing it away has been found to influence the memory. Or you can put the paper through the shredder, or simply tear it up. Remembering an event actually carries less emotional charge after this kind of symbolic act.(1)
Ultimately, worry should be a tool or a signal that lets us know when something might need addressing. We shouldn’t throw this tool away completely, but no tool should ever be allowed to enslave its owner, and especially not at Christmas, when we look forward to some time to rest and recharge.
- Xiuping Li at NUS Business School asked 80 students to write about a recent decision they regretted. Half of them were told to seal their written recollection in an envelope. Afterwards, the envelope students felt less negative about the event than control students who just handed in their recollection without an envelope. The finding was replicated with forty female students who were asked to write about a strong personal desire that hadn’t been satisfied. ‘Grab it, bag it, bin it – a new approach to psychological problem solving’, British Psychological Society Research Digest, 6 September 2010.