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December 21, 2012

STAWAR: Holiday spirit: It’s all in the mind

In the field of counseling, cognitive therapy has become the gold standard, especially since it’s been declared to be evidence-based by no less than the federal government.

Evidence-based just means that there have been a number of research studies that show it actually works. Cognitive therapy is used for a variety of psychological problems, and is often combined with medication to treat anxiety and depression. It’s based on the notion that how we think about things determines how we feel and ultimately how we act. From this simple idea, a variety of techniques have evolved to try to help people restructure their thinking so that their thoughts are more rational and adaptive.

It’s hard to imagine just how much our perspective influences us. In a classic study of criminal behavior, psychologist and author of “The Criminal Personality,” Stanton Samenow, found that the one consistent and reliable psychological difference between criminals and noncriminals was their thinking. Samenow identified 17 distinct thinking errors among criminals, including errors such as impulsivity, unrealistic expectations, blaming and the inability to conceive of injury to others. He has also listed 16 tactics criminals routinely use to evade responsibility including things such as lying, minimization and accusing others.

These thinking differences account for how criminals react differently to a variety of life situations. For example, someone with a criminal thinking perspective may act very differently then they see an unattended cash drawer, an unlocked car with the keys in it or when they feel insulted or threatened in some manner.

I have always been fascinated by how people can react so differently to exactly the same situation. Since we all have distinctive genetic endowments and life experiences, our beliefs, images and associations are likewise varied. These, however, are the filters through which we view experience and then put our unique slant on things.

Take the holiday season for example. Ira Glass, from the popular public radio show “This American Life,” once said that Christmas can be thought of as a massive Rorschach test of sorts. How we choose to celebrate the season undoubtedly reflects our thinking. We are all presented with the same basic elements (Christmas trees, gifts, Santa, candy canes, elves, etc,) but how we interpret them gives rise to our own holiday feelings, behaviors and traditions. These cognitive differences can account for both those people love the holidays as well as those who despise the holiday season.

Some people who dislike holidays have acquired a variety of negative associations. I remember one young man who routinely came to one of the groups at a mental health center where I worked. He was always especially depressed during the holiday season and even the office decorations seemed to trigger him. It turned out that he had donated a box of his Christmas tree ornaments to the center and whenever he saw them placed on a tree, they reminded him of his parents, whom he had loss in an automobile accident a few years earlier.

Many people have their holidays permanently tainted by the loss of a loved one during this time of the year. One cannot help but think of the overwhelming grief of the families in Newtown, Conn., this year. I once knew a psychologist whose young son was killed in an airplane accident just before Christmas. She told how me she just couldn’t face the prospect of taking the still-wrapped gifts away from under the Christmas tree and how friends had to help her get this done. After the grieving process has advanced, there may be some ways to partially uncouple such tragedies from the holidays — often for the sake of other children — but for most people, even then, they can never be the same.

For other folks, their dislike of holidays may stem from the enormous stress of the season. A vast majority of the most onerous tasks like shopping, cleaning, cooking, entertaining and baking fall to women in our society and it is understandable that many of them begin to resent all that pressure. I have learned not to appear too jolly during holidays, especially when my wife Diane is working her fingers to the bone on one of these projects.

People who are like me and are chronic worriers also perceive the holidays differently. Regardless of how much we prepare, we’re always worried about things such as: Will we spend too much?; What if they don’t like the presents we picked?; When will we go and get the Christmas tree?; Will there be any good ones left?; Will it cost $100 or more?

Humorist Garrison Keillor has written about how his mother obsessively worried that their Christmas tree would catch fire. Each night before going to bed, she would check the tree and wrap it in a wet sheet. When Keillor’s uncle started flicking his lit cigar ashes near the tree she literally threw him out the front door.

We worriers are pessimistic and tend to look on the dark side of things. As the weather gets colder, my wife Diane and I have started using both a blanket and a heavy comforter to cover up at night. You can really feel the weight that all this exerts.

To get some idea of how differently we think about things, Diane says that when she pulls up the covers up, she imagines that she’s like the girl in the story of Heidi, whose grandfather makes a cozy warm bed for her in the hayloft. When I, however, feel the weight of the bedspread, I think about “pressing,” a method that was used in medieval times to extract confessions out of people accused of witchcraft. Pressing consisted of placing a board over the body of accused people and gradually adding heavier stones until they confessed or were crushed.

I admit that my image is rather morbid, but I’m hoping that the difference in our images is some sort of gender thing. It’s pretty unlikely that I’m ever going identifying with Heidi.

When I was in elementary school, I had an allergy to the pain-killer that most dentists used. Instead of Novocain, they just gave me something to make me drowsy and tried to go real slow when I had dental work done. I’m not sure going real slow was such a good idea, but that’s what they did.

I have since learned that when confronted with discomfort, it can help to select some positive image to help you cope and relax. When Diane was preparing to deliver our son, she chose the image of floating up and down on ocean waves on an inner tube on a pleasant sunny day. When I, however, was confronted with the discomfort of the dental work, I imagined that I was a spy who had been captured by the enemy and they were torturing me to try to get information. Being a rough and tough secret agent, I was not going to give them the satisfaction of seeing me cry. I’m not sure where my torture preoccupation came from (probably from growing up with my older brother).

I suppose I have always used pessimism as way to protect myself from the bad news I always fully expect to get. Since I expect the worse, any surprises that come are generally good ones.

Some people see the glass as half-empty, some as half-full. I see it as full to the brim with something toxic, along with a jagged edge that will probably cut your lip. Maybe a little cognitive therapy could help me get a better perspective.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com

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