A Simple Trick to Turn Holiday Pain Into Pleasure

Taking Yourself Out Of The Moment Can Put You In The Moment

For many, family holidays such as Christmas are stressful.

One simple mind trick can help you appreciate them in a genuine positive way: use your inner time machine, press the fast forward button then reset.

Eva was a patient of mine who always was very stressed out before Christmas.  Just the thought of having her mother over for Christmas dinner gave her insomnia the whole month of December, year after year.  As a result of this stress, her immune system was weak and she would invariably get a sore throat or bronchitis around Christmas time. After Christmas, she always spent time describing how disrespectful her mother was and how it was the last Christmas dinner she was ever hosting. Yet, the following Christmas, she would go through the same thing all over again.

This lasted until her mother passed away in 2008.

I expected the following year to be much better for her since she didn’t have to put up with her mother any more. Yet, something very surprising happened. She started missing her mother and Christmases became very sad because she remembered spending them with her mother and now her mother was gone. Instead of coming to my office sick with sore throat or bronchitis, she came with symptoms of depression, which made her feel even worse.

Strangely enough, she didn’t realize what she had until it was gone and then, it was too late.

A lot of us are just like Eva. We are not aware of what we have until we lose it.

But what if we could play with our inner time machine to better enjoy relatives during the holidays?

Here is one way to do it:

As you are about to have your big holiday family dinner, press the fast forward button of your inner time machine and imagine it’s 50 years later and your mom and dad (or anybody in your family that you have a hard time getting along with) are long gone. You haven’t seen them for 50 years and you miss them. You know your didn’t get along with them but they were family, they were part of your past, part of your youth. You are now older (you could even fast forward more and be as old as the oldest person on earth, who is today 117 years old). Your hair turned grey. Your face wrinkled. Your joints ache when the weather is cold and rainy. And here you are, cooking your usual family holiday dinner by yourself, for yourself. Or maybe you are in a retirement home. You wish you could go back in time…

Suddenly, you are aware that there is a button you can press on your inner time machine. The one that brings you back to the here and now: the reset button. You press that button and you are transported back to the current holiday season.

As you hear the doorbell ring, open the door to your visiting family in this frame of mind, as if you hadn’t seen them in 50 years, as if you had been brought back from the distant future full of wrinkles, white hair, joint aches and loneliness.

Appreciate fully being here and now. Yes, your family is difficult to deal with but they are alive and healthy, actually healthy enough to be difficult to deal with. Let their criticisms fly over your head and not affect you. Concentrate on how good it feels to have family around you, to be young again. Take a bathroom break to look at yourself in a mirror. Your hair is not grey yet, your face isn’t much wrinkled. Your joints don’t ache. Enjoy this moment then go to the kitchen and with a big genuine smile, bring your wholesome turkey dinner to the family in the dining room. Your genuine smile and happiness will light everybody’s heart.

A previous post, “A better way to read people and trust that you’re right,” shows that people can sense if you’re lying or if you are genuine. If you are genuinely happy, this will somehow show and family members might have an unexpected reaction.  They might even be astoundingly appreciative… or not. It doesn’t matter. What matter is your genuine happiness.

This is the trick I recommend to people exposed to difficult family gatherings. Since the family gathering is going to happen anyway, why not make the best of it?

This experience is an example of how to put the principle of Cognitive Dissonance to good use.

Cognitive Dissonance is when you have two conflicting ideas, for example the idea of family Christmas dinner that should be joyous but your unconscious predicts it will be miserable and traumatic. Those conflicting ideas are very uncomfortable and even painful. This discomfort and pain can bring out stress and anger.

A common way that we reduce this kind of dissonance is to unconsciously suppress our stress and anger, so that family gatherings seem—on the surface—to be everything they are supposed to be. But the more we push down negative emotions, the more stressed out we will become, ultimately making our immune systems weaker. As a result, we might become sick with sore throat or bronchitis or other disease.

A much healthier way to reduce Cognitive Dissonance (CD) is to find a way for our unconscious to be genuinely happy. Fast-forwarding to an imaginary future then hitting the reset button will do just that because—by imagining that our relatives are forever unavailable—our unconscious automatically increases the perceived value of those relatives (CD theory argues that we place much higher value on things that are scarce or unattainable, that’s why we always seem to want most the very things we can’t have).

Such automatic dissonance reduction can occur almost instantly.

Studies published by Johanna Jarcho and colleagues in 2011 show how fast this works: Functional MRI studies observed fast increased activity in the brain areas responsible for emotions and reward after rationalization involved in a decision-based cognitive dissonance paradigm.

In addition to working quickly, the time machine method is free and requires no medication.

So, if you are stressed out because of upcoming holiday family gatherings and are looking for a new tool to put in your arsenal: Consider using your inner time machine, fast forward then reset and enjoy.

Or… you can simply decide to avoid the situation altogether and book a holiday trip in some far away island…

© Dr. Chris Gilbert, MD, PhD

Originally Published on PsychologyToday

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Van Veen, V.; Krug, M.K.; Schooler, J.W.; Carter, C.S. (2009). “Neural activity predicts attitude change in cognitive dissonance” (PDF). Nature Neuroscience. 12 (11): 1469–1474. doi:10.1038/nn.2413. PMID 19759538.

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Jarcho, Johanna M.; Berkman, Elliot T.; Lieberman, Matthew D. (2011). “The neural basis of rationalization: cognitive dissonance reduction during decision-making“. Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience. 6 (4): 460–467. doi:10.1093/scan/nsq054. PMC 3150852 . PMID 20621961.

Adam Hampshirea, Samuel R. Chamberlainb, Martin M. Montia, John Duncana, Adrian M. Owena, The role of the right inferior frontal gyrus: inhibition and attentional control. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.12.109

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