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Coping with Holiday Worries

December '09

You may have noticed you did not receive an edition of Midlife Discovery last month. I missed an issue and despite considerable effort, have been unable to forget about my error. In short, I’ve been fretting. Fortunately, a friend bought me a copy of the November/December issue of Scientific American Mind with an interest-peaking article on “Why We Worry.”

The article contained an explanation based on an experiment conducted at Harvard decades ago. When participants were asked not to think of a white bear (I always thought it was a pink elephant), they tended to mention it about once a minute in the monologue that followed.

The experimenter postulated that trying to put a thought out of your mind makes matters worse. By consciously attempting to avoid an undesirable thought, you remain more aware of it. Furthermore, when you focus your efforts on suppressing an idea, you unconsciously sensitize your brain to it.

According to the article, spending too much time fretting “undermines the body’s ability to react to stress, weakening the cardiovascular system and disrupting normal emotional functioning.” Yikes – what to do?

You can employ a variety of strategies. This article outlines six – one of which students found very successful when I was advising them as a dean at Wellesley. In this approach, you actually bring your attention to the your current anxiety for about 15 minutes, as you repeat your worry over and over in your mind (ex: I may never fall asleep; I’ll never pass this test.) As you might guess, most folks give up long before the 15 minutes is over; it’s just too boring to continue.

Another method is to take a 15-minute meditation break. Simply relax in a comfortable chair, allow your eyes to close and bring your attention to your breathing. Instead of focusing on your worries, when specific thoughts or concerns arise, simply let them float away while you bring your attention back to your breath. I recommend both of these seemingly oppositional strategies for mitigating the worry phenomenon.

Worry isn’t always a bad thing; if fretting beings a solution to a problem, that’s helpful. I was truly bothered when I realized I had forgotten to compose a November newsletter in the midst of my usual coaching, teaching and volunteer activities, along with travel to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and then more travel to celebrate a 4-year old grandchild’s birthday, then preparations for Christmas with more travel plans – plus the brief hospitalization of my 94-year old mother who turned out to be just fine.

While I appreciated a kind friend’s suggestion that no one would notice my newsletter omission because we’re all so busy this time of year, I wasn’t persuaded by her logic. However, I did tune into her comment about the expansion of our “to-do” lists during the holidays. As a result, I’ve decided to publish Midlife Discovery eleven times a year with a single issue for November/December. Stewing can be productive!

So if your worry level is rising this season, take 15 minutes to focus on your concern and get bored, or take a meditation break and get relaxed. Or, perhaps engage your specific anxiety and you may find a satisfying solution.

Meanwhile, happy holidays to you,


  1. Margaret said on December 21, 2009:

    I missed your newsletter!

  2. Maud Chaplin said on December 21, 2009:

    Your solution is inspired! Makes sense from everybody’s point of view.
    So your forgetting one issue led to a much better plan. Sometimes what looks like a problem is really a road sign pointing to a solution.

  3. Elizabeth Smith said on December 21, 2009:

    Hi Bonnie,

    Ah, I’m not alone. And when I do something similar, I, too, have learned it’s due to an impossible, over scheduled life. Good for you to make the necessary adjustment; i.e. the November/December issue for the very busy holiday season.

    I wish you a very Merry “stew free” Christmas!!
    And good health in the New Year.

    Warmest regards,

  4. Bonnie said on December 21, 2009:

    Thanks, Betty!

    I love the notion of “stew-free” holiday season!


  5. Bonnie said on December 22, 2009:

    Hi Maud!

    The metaphor of a problem as a potential road sign is inspired!

  6. Victoria Baldasarre said on December 23, 2009:

    Happy Holidays Bonnie!
    Honestly, being so busy I didn’t realize you missed the issue. You were certainly focusing your attention on important family relationships.
    I share your interest in finding gentle ways to free ourselves of worry especially around the holidays. Your meditation suggestion is perfect for me.
    Thinking of you and wishing you a warm and wonderful holiday season.


  7. Bonnie said on December 23, 2009:

    Hi Margaret!

    Thanks for noticing: )


  8. Bonnie said on December 23, 2009:

    Hi Victoria!

    Love your phrase, “gentle ways to free ourselves of worry especially around the holidays.”


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