Well, it is that time again.
Every year as the holiday season approaches, I really start to struggle. My energy and motivation drops off, I get headaches, stomach cramps and become fairly irritable.
I recognize that it is probably about the inevitable visits with some of our extended family and all of the criticism that comes with these visits. It feels like they are always questioning my parenting, the choices I make and the things I do. Each year it is the same.
As the time approaches I worry more and more about it and I just have these images in my head of them looking at me with scorn that leaves me feeling physically sick. It feels awful and it leaves me in knots every year even though it is never as bad as I think it is going to be.
I am not sure what to do but I want to stop working myself into a lather each year and to find a different way to deal with it. Any thoughts?
The situation you describe is one that many people experience at this time of the year. It also sounds as if the lead up to these visits is often more difficult and painful for you than the visits themselves.
This is also a common experience for people as they anticipate activities or interactions that they have had a negative experience with in the past.
One definition of anxiety and worry says that anxiety is caused by an overestimation of danger and an underestimation of our ability to cope. It suggests that worry tricks us into anticipating that things are going to be much worse than they really are and that it tricks us into thinking that we do not have the strength or ability to deal effectively with the situations we are going to face.
You say that the interactions are often not as bad as you think they are going to be. This would be an example of your worry tricking you into anticipating things as worse than they end up being.
The physical experience that you describe is a classic stress response that can be triggered by our own thoughts and worries. It disrupts our sleep, leaves us tired and cranky, and impacts our motivation and energy levels when it persists over time.
As we experience these physical effects it often intensifies the negative and anxious thoughts that leave us with the feelings that you describe. We then feel worse and worse and we worry more and more. It can be a vicious cycle.
Breaking this cycle is not easy and it takes practice, but it can be done. There are two approaches in breaking the cycle which can be accomplished with some practice on your own.
The first is to recognize and challenge the thoughts that are overestimating how bad things are going to be and the second is to have some strategies and plans ready for you to use when you experience these interactions.
One suggestion is to make a list of some of the ways in which you overestimate how bad things are going to be and then make a new list of more realistic thoughts that you can use to counter the negative ones.
Then when you catch yourself stuck in a negative thought cycle, practice using your more realistic thoughts to counter the negative ones that keep you stuck. Work at using these more realistic thoughts more and more in response to your own worry and over time you can have an effect on how you think about the upcoming visits.
Another suggestion is to plan some alternative responses to the negative questions and looks that you experience as part of these interactions. You already have an image of what the situation looks like so developing some strategies for responding to these anticipated situations can bolster your ability to manage as you enter into the interactions in the future.
Once you have a plan that you have some confidence and trust in, take some time to practise it either through role play with someone else or by walking through the interactions in your imagination and seeing yourself using the strategies you have developed successfully.
Such practice is important because it helps us prepare and more effectively manage the feelings that can often distract us in the moment.
In the end we cannot eliminate the stress and worry that we often experience in the lead up to the situation you describe but we can get better at managing how we think about and cope with the situations.
Taking the time to get enough rest, to resist the negative anticipations and to strengthen your skills for coping in the moment can have a significant impact on breaking the cycle that leaves you feeling physically sick. It is not easy and we sometimes need some help but with some determination and practice it can be done.
Good luck. and I hope that this year you can find some ways that help you feel better than you have in the past.
If you would like to ask a question of the counsellors, for a response in future columns, e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Consult a Counsellor is provided by the registered clinical counsellors at Pacific Therapy & Consulting: Nancy Bock, Diane Davies, Leslie Wells and Andrew Lochhead. It appears every second Friday.