The first job of our minds is to keep us safe. The world is a dangerous place, and we were blessed with an abundance of neurons devoted to keeping us upright and breathing.
The problem with human minds is that they are always trying to save our lives - whether we need it or not. There are times when they make no distinction between being chased by a bear or being stuck in an elevator (more on that topic in my current book). The mind has a knack for sounding alarm bells even when we are perfectly safe.
As a clinical psychologist, I see a lot of that during the holidays. There is plenty to be anxious or depressed about this time of year, but relationships seem to be the most common concern. That makes sense. Family, community, and togetherness are in the spotlight this time of year, and those just happen to be some of the mind's most pressing survival interests.
There was a time in our history when being ostracized was as good as a death sentence. Perhaps because of that, our brains are wired to pay close attention to our social world and to sound the alarm whenever relationships seem unsteady.
We carry that old wiring to this day. Our minds perform some important functions to keep us connected to others.
First, our minds monitor the health of our relationships. Have you ever gotten a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach after a boss made a vague statement that left you wondering where you stand? That sick feeling is probably the mind's way of urging you to repair the relationship.
During the holidays, when society focuses on family and community, we can become acutely aware of ruptured or damaged relationships. Our minds can give us all kinds of pain in response to that heightened awareness.
Second, our minds routinely compare us to others. Staying in the good graces of the clan means imitating normal behavior. It wouldn't have paid for one of our ancestors to bang the drums when everyone else was trying to sleep, and so humans learned to follow the crowd and do what others do.
This time of year, idealized images of family and relationships surround us, from pictures of happy families in advertisements to holiday portraits mailed by friends and family. A good and healthy human mind is going to compare us to those ideals and may decide that we are lacking – whether or not it's true.
Our minds usually errs on the side of caution on matters of survival. Imagine walking alone in the woods and being startled by a mysterious rustling in the bushes. A good mind won't assume that the rustling is caused by Santa Claus about to leap out at us, bearing gifts. It will probably assume the worst, like the presence of a predator, and give us a good jolt of anxiety to make us stop and pay attention.
The mind behaves similarly with relationships. It can find problems where none exist, or exaggerate problems that are easily repaired. So what do we do with these holiday-angst-ridden minds?
But the most important skill is simply to notice what's happening when some corner of the mind becomes concerned about relationships. Noticing what the mind is doing gives us choices: should we heed its warnings and start repairing relationships? Or is the mind simply sounding an unwarranted alarm?
If the former is true, now is as good a time as any to begin the repairs. If it's the latter, you might remind yourself that you don't have to believe everything your mind says.
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Dr. Smith is a psychologist in Denver, Colorado and the author of The User's Guide to the Human Mind: Why Our Brains Make Us Unhappy, Anxious, and Neurotic and What We Can Do about It. You can read the introduction and find other goodies at guidetothemind.com.