Holiday Stress in 2020

Blog by Jake Wiskerchen

It’s holiday season!

Depending on your present state of affairs, you may have read that opening line with enthusiasm or resentment. But for now, let’s assume you rolled your eyes at it because, hey, COVID-19 and all…

As if the holidays themselves weren’t cause enough to be stressed out, this year we have a pandemic, lockdowns, widespread job loss, and inconsistent leadership overlaying them. Mix in a few conspiracy theories, government overreach, plus the desire to meet with family members without making them sick (or suffering the threat of fines or jail time), and we have a pretty spicy recipe for high anxiety and deep depression. What is a person to do in the face of all this?

In short, I don’t know.

While I realize it’s not popular or conventional for WTTA’s “mental health guy” to acknowledge that he doesn’t have answers, but I figured the least I could do in this time of chaos and turbulence is, to be honest with you, the struggling reader. But I can also offer a bit of basic neurological education that I have discovered to have a profound effect on how I deal with stuff.

The simple fact is that while the word unprecedented gets tossed around a lot, it is not inaccurate. Several generations of Americans just have not been met with this level of conflict and distress for this length of time. Fortunately, that means we’ve largely had it pretty good, especially in this country. Unfortunately, it means that we have largely forgotten how to endure tough times, especially when they don’t have a clear ending.

I spend a great deal of my clinical work and time on teaching emotional functioning and doing so in various ways. I can spend anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours talking about it but basically, it goes like this: 1) something happens in the environment, 2) the brain’s limbic system sends a signal for the body to respond to that something, 3) we respond, 4) that something in the environment ends or passes, 5) life goes on.

That’s it. Emotion is fleeting, only lasting a few seconds in the brain, then thinking returns and we move forward.

Yes, it is oversimplified but this is more or less what occurs neurologically whenever we encounter anything, from births to deaths, from burnt toast to stepping on a child’s toy, from the Giants losing to the Giants winning. All emotions are temporary, then once they pass, we return to reason, logic, and thinking.

So why do we stay in emotional states longer than just a few seconds? Why do our temporary emotions turn into longer-lasting moods?

It’s because we think about the events long after they have passed. Or in the case of anxiety, long before they ever happen. In a nutshell, depression is when we fixate our thoughts on something in the past we cannot change because it’s already over, while anxiety is when we fixate our thoughts on something in the future we cannot control because it is not here yet. And, often, those things in the future upon which we spend so much time and emotional energy never happen, which makes our worrying about them quite wasteful. And then, in turn, we get upset about how much we wasted, which can make us depressed, and the cycle continues. How do we combat this? Notice where we direct our thoughts and then put them where we want them to be.

We can control our thoughts, but not necessarily emotions. Similarly, although we cannot necessarily control what happens to us in life, we can absolutely control how we respond to what happens to us. Here’s something else interesting: we don’t have to wait for the environment to do something before we alter our moods or emotions. We can influence how we feel by what we think.

Try this exercise. Think about a fluffy, cuddly puppy and how that puppy bounces all over, playfully biting fingers, licking faces, and awkwardly sliding around on a hard surface as it chases whatever you throw for it. And boy, do puppies smell good! I love new puppy smell.

Unless like the Grinch, your heart is also two sizes too small and you too have garlic in your soul, chances are pretty strong that you have a smile on your face thinking about that puppy. Now imagine something horrible, sad, or scary and notice how your emotions change. You can literally alter your own brain chemistry by adjusting where you direct your attention. That’s pretty powerful stuff.

So why am I talking about this in relation to the holidays, a pandemic, and constant media – both mainstream and social – reminding us that death, destruction, division, and threats are all around us? Because you get to choose where you direct your attention. You don’t have to look at it. You could look elsewhere. And if you must look at it (perhaps because your work demands it, as mine does) then you still have the choice as to how much and how long you feel the message, as well as whether or not you hang onto what you hear and see. Plus, you also get to make the decision whether to respond with negativity or do what we in my profession call “reframe” the experience.

For example, when my family made the decision not to host 30+ friends and relatives for Christmas Eve like we have done for as long as I can remember, my wife and I had a choice. We could choose to be sad about what we are missing, or choose to celebrate the intimacy of being in a smaller group consisting of only the four of us and my parents. We reframed what could be a reason for (yet more) disappointment into being thankful not to chase around all day in high stress preparing the multiple dishes, setting up the tables and chairs, purchasing all the elements, and so forth. It’s hard work hosting a party that large and, after all that we’d endured this year, we chose to be grateful not to do it this year.

Alternatively, we could complain about the virus and its illness, the government’s (multiple) failures, the election conflict, the civil unrest, the economy, or any number of things we’re told are supposed to be disturbing. Regardless, the choice is ours. We are not beholden to negativity and fear just because that is what we have had pumped into our heads and minds. We get to choose. And with that comes an incredible amount of responsibility, which as firearms owners we embrace and encourage in others. Responsibility for one’s own mood is perhaps the most important charge we have in life.

So while I may not have the answer to your particular stress, what I can offer is the idea that you are not handcuffed to it. This kind of liberty is what reminds people of their own internal power to determine their own moods and attitudes. Truly, what we are experiencing is indeed unprecedented. But what has remained the same across human existence is our ability to choose how we respond, no matter what happens to us. The world is, and always has been, rife with conflict and chaos, death and destruction. It has also been forever saturated with optimism and resilience, assistance, and gratitude.

This holiday season, what will you choose? It is up to you, after all. And that, to me, is quite encouraging.