For most people, anxiety is a looped internal conversation. It just keeps starting over even when we don’t want to listen to it anymore.
The Christmas season we’re in can make anyone quite anxious. (Don’t think so, watch this fun video to remind you why.) Those of us naturally anxious and ruminative find the added responsibilities, family stresses, and disappointments just adding fuel to the fire. You try to take a moment to rest but all you can do is think about what is yet to be done or what you tried to do but failed. You pray but before you finish you are back to your worries. You distract yourself but the looped fears keep running in the background.
What helps you decrease your anxieties and repetitive worries? Can you really suppress them? Or should you have another goal in mind than just trying to shut them down? Are there any practical strategies that work?
Daniel Wegner gave a short award address on this topic at the 2011 APA convention (now found in v. 66:8 of the American Psychologist, pp 671-680). In the address he tells us what we already know. It is hard to suppress thoughts in a direct manner (e.g., I won’t think about how much work I have to do). So, Wegner focuses on indirect strategies. Here is a sample of strategies with empirical support:
- focused distraction
- pre-planned alternative topic to think about when the rumination starts. Benefit? Avoids mind wandering which will more quickly return to the anxiety. Example: Every time I think about the conflict at work I will focus on a comforting favorite verse or an upcoming happy occasion.
- Stress and load avoidance
- Overall reduction of stress helps reduce unwanted/anxious thoughts. Focused distraction helps only to a point. Overwork which may provide some distraction will increase anxious thoughts over time.
- Thought postponement
- Choosing to postpone anxiety to a set time can work to reduce the amount of rumination experienced. Example: I’ll spend time worrying about my visiting in-laws at 4:30 pm.
- Instead of fighting and arguing with fears some find it helpful to observe fears without taking action. There is some evidence that those who accept the occurrence of unwanted thoughts have less distress than those who fight the thoughts.
Wegner goes on to mention other strategies (i.e., planned exposure, mindfulness, focused breathing, self-affirmation, hypnosis, and journaling) for reducing unwanted thoughts.
A Different Goal?
What if the goal isn’t to remove or end unwanted thoughts and anxieties but to cope with them and not to be dragged along by them? Does this sound like failure to trust God? Failure to be at peace? if the goal is to trust God in the midst of uncertainty and anxiety, what would that look like? How would you know that you were doing well? To do this we would need to give up on the goal of having an absence of anxiety and to reimagine peace as something one can have in the midst of angst. After all, we are not seeking to be absent from this world but to live in the world that is full of chaos and uncertainty.
Here are two goals you might consider:
- Being okay with things not done to perfection and with the disappointment of others who have come to expect perfection from you
- Experiencing anxious thoughts as normal and yet savoring moments of rest when they present themselves
- Using one strategy for anxiety reduction each day
So, how do you measure your seasonal high anxieties and what goal do you seek to reach during this Christmas season?
4 responses to “Stopping seasonal high anxieties: Some strategies and a better goal”
Is anxiety the same as stress, or worry? If it is not the same, what are the differences? I find it easy to distinguish stress from worry. I don’t know where anxiety fits.
I do a “Holiday Stress Management” session with my groups I lead every year. We start by talking about what expectations people have of the holidays (usually a warm, nostalgic feeling of sublime happiness), and where those expectations came from (family, media, old oaken bucket theory, etc.). Then we compare our expectations with what the holidays usually deliver, and how they deal with the usual disappointment. I define stress generally as the emotional response we have to the disequality between what we believe we need and what we believe we have or can reasonably expect to acquire. When my group folks compare what they’ve come to irrationally believe the holidays can or must deliver, and what typically comes their way, they’re left to deal with disappointed longings most years. I try to help them separate the legitimate disappointment arising from legitimate longings, and unnecessary stress that comes from irrational beliefs about what it takes to create “holiday happiness”. Most have found this little exercise helpful.
I find these strategies extremely helpful. It’s helpful to know that I will not be completely delivered from the anxiety in the here and now. There are ways to keep in at bay and I can interact with it which diffuses its power. I attended a Lessons and Carols service last night and one thing that grabbed me was the invitation to joy. It stirred a longing in me to have and experience that joy and to quit striving. I long for rest from the anxiety.
Once I learned to just accept the feelings of anxiety and not to fight them, I managed to cope with them a lot better. When I woke in the night, I used to get so frustrated that I couldn’t get back to sleep it made it more unlikely that I would. Now when I wake, I just accept the fact that I’ll be up a little while and that I’ll ruminate a bit over things undone. Then I start imagining myself under the water in the ocean (floating quietly and peacefully), looking up at the waves breaking overhead (my worries). Within an hour I’m asleep again.