Guest Blogger Chris McConnell, CBT, ACT and Mindfulness Therapist, has written some timely words on managing anxiety, stress and depression at this time of year.
De-Scrooging Yourself this Christmas
Watching an advertisement on Irish TV recently, showing two employees going to great lengths to de-scrooge their boss, who on Christmas Eve demands a pile of work gets done by the morning, it reminded me of how we need to work to de-scrooge ourselves at Christmas. This work can be especially needed when we are struggling with anxiety and/or depression, and especially at a time when we ‘should’ be enjoying the festive season.
Let’s face it, Christmas is often a very predictable and painful affair. Just as we will be given a novelty Christmas jumper, we find ourselves in old and family(iar) circumstances. Thinking styles like ruminating about the passing year and worry about the one to come, alongside close contact with family and the patterns of behaviour, thinking and feelings this automatically entails, all in a context where the subliminal message from the media is that it is absolutely necessary to be happy!
It’s just like in Scrooge (Dickens’ novella ‘A Christmas Carol’) you get visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. These ghosts can come in any order or indeed all at once for a triple whammy.
The Ghost of Christmas Past
You end up in a cycle of rumination about the past. You find yourself endlessly going over and over the past finding more and more to say about what you should and shouldn’t have done. Just like for Scrooge, with this style of thinking, your whole life seems to be a string of regrets. The more you indulge this ghost, the lower your mood seems to go, and the more haunted you become.
The Ghost of Christmas Future
What if…? But what if…? Here you are preoccupied by worry about the future. Again it seems compulsive and just as you answer one ‘what if’, another one starts to rattle its chains. The more time you spend on worrying about the future, the more anxious you become.
The Ghost of Christmas Present
At first it seems unusual to talk about the present as if it is a ghost, but this ghost is in fact the most pernicious and is indeed the foundation for the problems of both the past and future. This is the self-judging, evaluative, critical thinking that we get totally wrapped up in. This ghost present wraps us up in a little parcel and tells us all about ourselves. It is the most ghostly indeed because the things we believe about ourselves (I’m a failure, I’m useless, I’m unlovable, I can’t cope, I’ll lose my mind…) don’t actually exist in the world of our 5 senses. Have you ever actually seen, heard, smelt, touched, or tasted a failure?
Excessive alcohol and/or drug use can seem like brief refuges from these ghosts for many over the holidays, but usually these short-term solutions rebound, and the haunting becomes fiercer.
If you are one of the many who can easily find themselves caught up in one or other of these seemingly believable Scrooge thinking styles, (including any of the many unworkable attempts to exorcise them), there is something you can do! De-Scrooging yourself here is equivalent to ‘Defusing’ yourself from being wrapped up in these unhelpful and draining ghosts.
Defusion is a term used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT – said all in one word, and part of the new wave of mindfulness based CBT therapies). Defusion is unwrapping yourself from the judging language, haunting memories and catastrophic images of the future. Defusion involves the acknowledgement that these ghosts will turn up, and that hiding and avoiding them is pointless and usually serves only to make their moans and cries even more realistic and frightening. (How can you get rid of something that is inside you without causing more damage?) Indeed these ghosts don’t need to be challenged.
Defusion is noticing that each ghost is just that, a ghost. These ghosts can’t cause you any actual damage; they can only rattle their chains and do their wailing moaning thing. Notice the difference between “I am a failure” and “I’m being visited by the familiar ghost of ‘I am a failure’”. You are not these ghosts. Noticing these visitors and letting go of them is like unwrapping yourself from them.
A Christmas Present to Yourself
The real present, here and now, does not judge you. This gift is always present and available; it’s everywhere and in everything that your senses are bringing to you in this moment. Letting go of the fusion to the stories of our past, future and all the judgements that come with them is the kindest gift you can give yourself.
Sometimes holding out to the future can help, especially when it’s held very lightly. What would you like to give yourself for next year? What things will you make important by your actions over the coming months and years? I know there is a trend to slag off New Year’s resolutions, but I don’t find that useful. I will be coming to the third year anniversary of (finally) giving up smoking. Some resolutions are gifts we can give to ourselves for ourselves.
Have a Mindful Christmas!