My colleague, Bryan Maier, has written a great and melancholic reminder of how longing and enjoyment of Christmas mingle soon after opening of presents. You can read it here.
He speaks the truth about our inability to remember most Christmas gifts and how quickly the unwrapping process is over, leaving us with a desire for more. If your family hands out gift cards or cash, I suspect the mingled feelings are even more prominent.
What Christmas was the best you ever had? Did it have anything to do with gifts? Location? People you spent it with?
One to Remember:
My wife and I rarely give each other gifts. That is a tradition we started back when we had little money to spend. Last year I broke with tradition and gave her an early present, captured here by my sister-in-law. Squint real hard and you can see the gift on her left hand next to her wedding band. 20.5 years with me plus recovering from recent breast cancer treatment (her fight and recovery was a gift to me!) was ample reason enough for her gift–as if she needed a reason!
But even a gift of jewelry won’t always stay in the mind. This year, one of my favorite gifts was this picture that I didn’t know existed. But soon I’ll put it away and not remember how great it was to give her the ring. I’ll see the ring on her finger and won’t be moved by it. That is the way of humanity. We have short memories for joy and thankfulness but sadly, longer memories for disappointment.
May we work hard to remember the many blessings of gifts we receive each and every day. The practice of remembering blessings will be a gift to you and to others as you are less likely to be a bitter person.
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?
No really, it does…at least at my house. Tomorrow we leave for points north and so instead of lugging presents we will have our family Christmas this afternoon when the kids come home from school. Not only does it mean we get to have our own little Christmas celebration but it also means the kids get 2 more Christmases (one with my wife’s family and another with mine).
So, last night I was putting together a gift my mother-in-law got for the boys: A Foosball table. Have you ever put a present together? The directions say it should have taken 2.5 hours. But it was 3.5 hours–and with my wife’s help–before I finished. Maybe I took longer because I didn’t start until 9 pm when I was already a bit tired. But, I don’t think I’m that incompetent, though I did use the wrong color screws at one point. I wonder how they test these things. How many human trials do they employ to come up with that number?
As I went to bed, satisfied but tired and sore from being bent over, I remembered a gift my father made for us when I was 3 or 4. He built a working garage for our matchbox cars. It had gas pumps and a little motor that ran a car lift to the roof of the garage. He built and painted it out of materials he had at home. My little effort to follow directions gives me renewed appreciation for that creative gift so long ago.
Do you remember a gift from your childhood?
Merry Christmas and see you in the new year.