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Too Much Holiday Stress?

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Too Much Holiday Stress?

Turn off obsessive worrying.
Joan Z. Borysenko Ph.D.
Joan Z. Borysenko Ph.D. More by this author
Nov 30, 2015 at 07:00 AM

Remember the song “Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative”? Easy for them to say! Although being aware of your thoughts, and exercising your authority to choose new ones is helpful, sometimes the strategy of accentuating the negative creates such a hilarious parody of the situation that it can help you change your mind even faster.

Woody Allen films are funny because he understands the movies of the mind. Listening in on the soliloquies of his characters and witnessing their mental concoctions is amusing because it’s so human. We all do it. One of his characters may have a simple headache and suddenly he fantasizes about being in the hospital with a terminal brain tumor. Psychologist Albert Ellis calls this awfulizing. That’s a great word. It’s powerful because it’s such a perfect description of obsessive worrying. Whenever we work up a situation mentally to the point where it has the most dire conclusion imaginable, we’re awfulizing.

When I got the contract for one of my books, I only had two months to write it between business trips. How could I do it? I was already busy, and the daily office work would still be there. Furthermore, the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s holidays were coming up. Most of our blended family of six adult children were planning visits. I began to awfulize. How could I possibly find time to write? I would miss being with the kids, and they would think they didn’t matter. I began to dwell on the fantasy that I was a hypocrite, one of those people who loves everyone in general, but no one in particular. How could I write about inner peace for busy people if I was a mess?

I sat down at the computer to write in that elevated state of mind. Wonder of wonders, after a whole day, nothing but drivel had appeared. That scared me even more. Apparently my fantasies about not being able to write the book were true. So I decided to try exaggerating the negative. “I will never write this book. I’ll have to give back the advance and then the bank will repossess the house. We’ll end up in the street—and all because those kids are coming!” I can do a pretty good comedy routine, and soon I was laughing so hard that I relaxed. At that point, I was able to acknowledge what my good friend Janet told me. She pointed out that I’ve always written best under pressure, being the type of person who lives for deadlines.

“If you had a whole year to write this book,” she reminded me, “you’d start the month before it was due.” I was awfulizing over nothing. I did love to work like that. I could spend the mornings writing and have the rest of the day free once the kids arrived. I relaxed, sat down, and immediately began to enjoy the creative process.

The key to exaggerating the negative is that humor counteracts the physical effects of the stress and panic that accompany obsessive worry. The body can’t tell the difference between what you imagine and what is real. Awfulizing is just like watching a scary movie. Your heart pounds, your breathing becomes shallow and ragged, your muscles tense, and you become hyper-alert. You’re ready to fight for your life. Once you’re in that state, it can be hard to get hold of yourself without a good dose of laughter to calm you down.

You don’t have to be facing a book deadline or any other unusual circumstance to get trapped by awfulizing. You probably do it every day. Perhaps you’re drinking your morning coffee when you think, I’m so incredibly busy. I still have yesterday’s phone calls to return. I bet there will be 10 new voice-mails and 20 new e-mails today. Then there are the two reports that are due. What a beautiful day it is. I’d love to go out for a walk, but there’s too much to do. How did things get so out of control? I’d rather pack it all in and move to a cabin in the woods. Now that your thinking has created stress, physical tension, and neurotransmitter disaster, you still have to get through your to-do’s, but with a body that has just been beaten up by chemical two-by-fours.

This week, when you notice obsessive worry, label it: “I’m awfulizing!” Try exaggerating your movie as if you were Woody Allen, until you see how entertaining you are. “I’m so busy. No one in the entire history of this world has ever been so busy. I have more phone calls to return than the president. I could run three countries, and I haven’t even had breakfast yet.” This will help stop the stress response and return you to a relative state of peace.

About Author
Joan Z. Borysenko Ph.D.
Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., is one of the leading experts on stress, spirituality, and the mind/body connection. She has a doctorate in medical sciences from Harvard Medical School, is a licensed clinical psychologist, and is the co-founder and former dir Continue reading