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What to Do When Holiday Gift-Giving Fills You with Anxiety

By Rob Waller
Author of End of Worry

The holiday shopping list is done: Chocolates for the in-laws, a football for the sweet kid next door, a book for Uncle Jim. But what to get my mother? You would think that with nearly 40 years of buying presents for her I would’ve gotten the hang of it by now. For some of us, these concerns can become all-consuming fears. Will my spouse think less of me? What will my niece tell her friends? Did I give my brother that last year? None of these questions have a definite answer—especially because I threw away last year’s gift list.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a common condition where the sufferer is stuck in cycles of worry—they just don’t seem to be able to let it lie. It can cause muscular tension, disturbed sleep, tiredness, and family arguments. This is especially tricky when the worry is about questions that really don’t have an answer, or when “big issues” like family and faith are involved. Will there be a family fight? Have I offended God? (This is not an overreaction; worriers think like this!)

The first step is to see if the worry is in regards to a solvable problem or one of those “floating worries.” Solvable worry, such as “Which wrapping paper?” can be addressed by structured problem solving—visiting the local shop, seeking advice, and making a logical choice. This problem has an answer and it’s procrastination that is the main problem. Oh, and if you know what your mom wants but are waiting for the miracle of a better idea— then get a move on and buy it.

Floating worries, on the other hand, like “Will I spend the right amount—not too much and not too little?” are situations in which planning can only take you so far. Some people seem to have faith that they are in the right ballpark; worriers lie awake at night going over this again, and again, and again… “Should it be $22 or $25? Will I get a better bargain if I search more online? What is the right amount of time to worry about how much more time I should spend searching?” (Yes, worriers think like this, too!)

It’s no use trying not to worry (about as useful as trying not to breathe)—something else needs to be done instead. Some floating worries respond to being labeled (“You’re just a nasty worry-thought—go away!”). Others need to be examined for evidence for and against. There is no smoke without fire, and Mom did seem to sneer at last year’s offering, but worriers tend to overrate the scary bits and underrate the contrasting facts.

A few will be dealt with by recognizing the drivers for worry: Some people hold onto the familiarity of worry like a favorite blanket or song. Better the devil you know… “Worrying feels like I am actually doing something. Worry worked for me that time, once, five years ago.”

The real trick is for worriers to learn how to manage life’s concerns like a non-worrier, where things just seem to pass them by. We all worry sometimes, but this ability to not react to worrying thoughts is a key skill. Techniques like contemplation, mindfulness, and breathing can really help here. Compassion (being kind to yourself) is not a bad skill to pick up, either—after all, you’re trying to be kind to your loved one. It can be really hard to try and be as considerate of our own feelings when worry is in charge. “I have done what I can to find her a present I believe she will like; worrying more will not help me and will make me sick.”

These skills and more are covered in The End of Worry, by Will van der Hart and Rob Waller, available May 2013.

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