JOHN SNYDER, PSY.D.

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SF, San Francisco County 94123
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Why We Regress During The Holidays. The Neuropsychology Of Experience And Memory, And The Construction Of Social Reality

January 6, 2018

 

 

The holidays are over, now for the psychological aftermath. 

 

Don't get me wrong: The holidays can be a joyous occasion. But the holidays can be hard. Everybody knows this. And a major reason the holidays are difficult is because we expect them to be difficult.

 

The psychology behind this self-fulfilling prophecy is illuminating, and can be understood and utilized to improve one's experience not just of the holidays, but of life in general.

 

Let's take a look at what happens during the holidays.

 

There you are. You had been doing so well. You'd been sticking to an exercise routine, eating a moderately (ok, mildly) healthy diet, managing your stress, improving your relationship with your significant other, setting boundaries with parents and siblings...and then the holidays hit, and your progress went to sh*t. Don't beat yourself up too much, it happens to everybody.  

 

The first time I noticed the "Holiday Regression" was during my predoctoral internship in the College Counseling Center at the University of California. I had arrived four months earlier, in late August, and almost immediately began treating college students and University staff for various psychological difficulties. Over the next several months, I saw many of my patients improve and make real progress in their lives and their relationships. But then something happened. In late November most of my patients went home for Thanksgiving weekend.

 

When they returned, many seemed a little off. I chalked it up to a an interruption in our treatment routine, and resumed the therapy process. Then the winter break hit in late December. The University shut down and the majority of my patients went home for several weeks over Christmas and New Years. When they returned, many had decompensated to pre-treatment symptomatic levels. It took weeks, and in a few cases, months to get us back to where we had been. I brought this up with my supervisor who had worked in College Counseling Centers for years. "It happens every year," She said knowingly.

 

As I have moved on in my career (no longer working on college campuses), I have continued to notice this trend toward a worsening of my patients' symptoms around, and especially immediately following, the holidays. In fact, I have observed it to be such a consistent, annual phenomenon that I have now come to expect it. -Believe me, the potential for my own expectations to enter into this self-fulfilling prophecy are not lost on me.

 

But what do the holidays mean to us psychologically? Why do we expect them to be so hard? Obviously, its based on our previous experiences. But what might not be so obvious is the ways in which our previous experiences lead us to bring about exactly what we might hope to avoid.  In order to better understand exactly how we do this, we must first understand how our brains make sense of our environment in the first place. 

 

Sensation and Perception

"You don't see with your eye. You perceive with your mind." This isn't just a clever lyric by the musical group Gorrillaz. There is real neuroscience behind this statement, and it holds implications for  understanding the ways in which the holidays affect us.

 

In all fairness, the Gorrillaz probably didn't give the eye quite the credit it deserves when considering the role it plays in our "seeing." The eyes, along with the ears, nose, mouth, and skin comprise our sensory apparatus. Our sensory apparatus serve as the access point for all environmental information (smell, heat, pressure, noise, etc) and are thus extremely important. 

 

When we encounter something (e.g., an apple) in our environment, our eyes focus on the object and take in the visual data. This visual data is then transmitted via our Optic Nerve and Optic tract, to our  Occipital Lobe at the back of our brain. The visual "data" is then processed by our Visual Cortex, located within our Occipital Lobe. 

 

 

Our Visual Cortex interfaces with other areas of our brain to further make sense of this data, comparing it with previously encountered objects and if/when it finds one that matches, the appropriate word is retrieved from the language centers of our brain. Other parts of our brain may also be accessed during this process. For example, the part of our brain responsible for smells, known at the Olfactory Cortex may be accessed as we recall that we love (or hate) the smell of apples. This further processing  enriches our experience, creating a feeling (love, hate, disgust, etc.) in us that is based upon our previous experience with apples. However, the way we come to identify an object in front of us as an "apple" is a bit more complicated than that. This is because: Current experience is based on our perception of our environment, but our perception is not a pure experience of the current environment.

 

Now, before you go all cross-eyed at the previous statement, consider something you probably already know: What is "out there" is processed and "made sense of" by our brains. Any given processing event (encountering an apple, viewing a painting, an interaction with a family member) inevitably involves a comparison with previous processing events. During this comparison, our brain attempts to fit this new event into other similar previously experienced events.

 

Let's take a simple event where you encounter and recognize an apple as a piece of fruit that you can eat. First your eyes sense a dark roundish object to your right. Or more accurately, your eyes sense an object, and transmit this data to your brain which perceives a dark roundish object. Your brain orders your neck to then orient your head so that you can gaze directly upon this object thereby transmitting more data to your brain, which perceives that this object is actually round and green, and about the size of your fist.​​ In an instant, your brain compares this against other known, roundish objects of similar color, size, and shape. In less than half of one second, you are already reaching for the object because you understand that this is a Granny Smith apple that you can eat, and you are currently hungry.  ​​

 

This processing event involves sensation, perception, and behavior, followed by more sensation, perception, and behavior. An important part of this processing event involves expectation. In expectation, we utilize our previous experience with objects to understand and predict how the current object is likely to "behave" in relation to us. This allows us to be more efficient and fluid in our interaction with the current object. We don't even need all the information or data in order to decide what an object is, and begin interacting with it.  For example, consider the following, more complex social scenario:

 

It is the holidays and you are in Target looking for Christmas lights. You see the back of a person wearing a bright red vest and black pants fussing with some items on the shelf. You begin to approach asking, "Excuse me, can you please direct me towards the Christmas lighting?" 

 

How did you know that this person could direct you? You did not see a name tag identifying this person as a Target employee. You didn't ask, and no one told you this was a Target employee. But still you knew this was a target employee in front of you. Or rather you perceived that this was a Target employee. You had incomplete, but sufficient  data to identify this object. You then made a decision to act based upon this limited information. This is an example of Top Down processing.

 

Top Down Processing

Top Down processing makes us faster data processors because it allows us to fill in missing information to make a decision about what something is. But it can lead to errors. For instance, in the example above, it turns out that the person in the red vest was actually not a Target employee at all, but instead an art teacher at the local elementary school wearing her Christmas vest. She was just looking for some glue. How embarrassing for you both. Luckily, she did know where the Christmas lights were located because she had just grabbed some for herself, and she generously directed you to the next aisle over. 

 

 

Top Down processing involves an interaction between our sensory apparatus (eyes) and our perceptual apparatus (visual cortex).  This makes us more efficient, but it can actually lead us to create things that may or may not be there because it leads us to perceive things without all the information, and even if we do have all the information, Top Down processing can lead us to perceive that information in a certain way.  For instance, look at the picture of the old woman with the big nose below. Do you see her? 

Now, what if I told you this was actually a picture of a young woman, wearing a necklace, looking away from us? What do you see now? Chances are,  when I primed you to see the old woman, you saw the old woman. When I primed you to see the young woman, you saw the young woman. This example clearly illustrates how our minds shape our reality.

 

Top Down processing is adaptive for humans because it makes us so much faster and efficient when interacting with our environment. It can free us up to be more creative in our response to an object because we don't need to use so much time and mental effort trying to decipher every last detail of an object to decide what that object is, what it will do, or how it is likely to affect us. We already know. However, as the above examples illustrate, we can be mistaken. This is is where we begin to see the important role that expectation plays in our perception and understanding of the world and how it can sometimes trip us up. This is on full display during our annual interactions with family members and it explains why despite people's best efforts, the same old problems arise again and again every year. 

 

Expectation and Relational Templates 

The power of previous experience to create our current reality occurs visually, but it also occurs relationally, particularly with people we know very well. Expectation leads us to view someone's behavior within the context of the past, and causes us to respond to them based not only on their present, but also their previous actions. This unsurprisingly leads them to respond back to us in the ways they "always have." This creates a self-reinforcing relational feedback loop leaving us stuck in archaic and painful ways of relating. This feedback loop can occur even if we have made substantial personal change.  Once back in our old familiar relational environment, we get caught up in, and co-create familiar scenarios.  The end result is that we are essentially relating to ghosts in the present, which can end up confirming that this person (or we) is/are still exactly the same, and "will never change."

 

The Creation of Relational Templates

All of us come into this world with certain dispositional tendencies. Some of us are more or less introverted, high octane or laid back, etc. This is our temperament, its just sort of how we showed up. However, the rest of the explanation for how we become who we become, can be understood as taking place through social learning.

 

In social learning, early experiences are processed in bottom up fashion. That is, they are more data-driven because we lack the previous experience and thus have nothing against which to compare our initial experiences. This does not mean that we have no basis upon which to judge our first experiences. For example, an infant that tends towards overstimulation may experience a supermarket as aversive, whereas an infant who is less temperamentally inclined to overstimulation may not be bothered by the same supermarket.

 

In either case, our first experiences are the foundational "wet cement" for what will gradually become a more solid relational structure. This structure is our relational template and it is responsible for our personal worldview. Just as each visual encounter with an object (sensation) is compared against previous stored encounter images (perception), every new relational encounter (sensation) is compared and thus perceived within the context of previous relational encounters. Like the concrete foundation of a building or a house, everything is built upon this supporting foundation.

 

Relational Templates and Expectation Based Behavior

As infants and young children, our parents , caregivers, and siblings comprise our entire social environment, and while we are not a complete tableau rasa, we are remarkably free of social experiences and thus exquisitely impressionable.

 

Through our foundational interactions with caretakers and family, we learn how to relate to the world and ourselves. If we are prized and attended to, we tend to find others important and internalize a sense of our own self-worth. If we are ignored and neglected, we tend to develop a a more isolating view of the world and ourselves. If we are abused either physically or emotionally, we naturally come to expect this sort of interaction with others. This happens with all animals.

 

For instance, the dog that has been beaten with a broom (a sensory experience) feels physical pain and fear (a perceptual experience). Consequently, subsequent encounters with its master holding a broom (a sensory experience) are likely to create a feeling of fear and the expectation of pain (a perceptual experience). These perceptual experiences may then lead the dog to cower and whimper (an expectation-based behavior based on perception). In this instance, the owner may only be intending to sweep the floor. However, because the dog is engaging in Top Down processing, it is only using a few pieces of data (owner holding broom) to make a decision about what is happening or what is about to happen. The dog did not notice or look for other data points (bottom up processing), such as the owner smiling and not even paying attention to the dog, etc).

 

In this scenario, one might imagine the owner noticing the cowering dog, and then having the feeling of  guilt, shame, and then anger at the 'unjust' accusation implied by the dog's cowering. The owner may then respond angrily, "I'm just sweeping the floor you dumb dog!" In this scenario, the dog has unwittingly and unintentionally contributed to bringing about exactly what it feared: The ire and possible violence of its owner. It's not hard to see how this scenario might apply in slightly more complex ways to our human interactions with family.

 

Your Critical Father

Let's imagine that you grew up in a house with an anxious father who constantly critiqued and corrected everything you did. When you played with Legos, he'd point out how you had not followed the diagram correctly, take the spaceship out of your hands, pull apart and rearrange various pieces, and hand it back to you. It didn't end there; years later when you were a teenager, he tried to teach you to drive. At this point, you had 15 years of constant criticism and correction. Predictably, the driving lesson ended with you screaming at him, stopping the car in the middle of the rode, and getting out to storm home where you vowed to never drive in the same car with the man again.

 

We won't get into the etiology of the fear and worry that drove your father's behavior, because for you, all that matters is that from a very early age, you have had the experience of never being able to do anything right. Although your father would never say he believes that you can "never do anything right," this is your perception (an understandable one given your experience). Like it or not, you may have even internalized the pathogenic belief that you are dumb or incompetent, leading you to frequently feel nervous and anxious while performing tasks. This has the unfortunate effect of making you perfectionistic and incredibly inefficient. Furthermore, your inefficiency, which has nothing to do with actual ability, but instead your learned anxiety, ends up frustrating others (your partner), making them more likely to take over from you, ("just let me do it already!") thereby confirming the pathogenic belief that you actually cannot do anything right. 

 

Your Trip Home For The Holidays

Today, you are 45 years old, and have a family of your own. You've been working on yourself in therapy. You've learned to recognize your tendency towards perfectionism, your sensitivity to criticism, and how it can lead to conflict in your relationship. What you once viewed as critical comments from your partner, you're now able to recognize as helpful suggestions. You've made real progress in this regard and there has been less conflict in your relationship because of it.

 

Then you go home to your parents house, for the holidays.

 

You're partner starts to notice a tenseness about you on the drive over and asks if you're ok, wanting to know what's wrong.

 

"Nothing. I'm fine," you say. But you're not. You're stomach starts feeling a little weird, the closer you get to your parents' house. You start to become preoccupied, lost in thought. You're driving becomes a little absent minded. You're not paying quite so much attention to the road as you might otherwise. Suddenly, 

 

"Honey, that's a stop sign!" You're partner gasps. 

 

"I know! I see it!" You snap back, startled and annoyed,  at your partner, at yourself.

 

"I'm sorry! Geez! You didn't seem to be slowing down."

 

It's already starting. You haven't even arrived at your dad's house and already, you're feeling like people think you don't know how to drive. By the time you arrive, there's an icy guilty tension between you and your partner. This is going to make things even harder because now, you've lost your support person, or at least it feels that way. 

 

You walk into your parents' house and give everyone a hug. Your dad says,

 

"That your new car? I like it. Can you move it out of the driveway, though? Your mother might need to run to the store and you're blocking her in." 

 

You're blood pressure goes up. Its ostensibly a reasonable request, right? But in the context of the last 25 years, this request lands differently in your brain than it does for your partner, who can't quite figure out what you're getting so bent out of shape about. Which irritates you further. Your dad doesn't understand why you give him such a curt reply, nor does he understand why you're being so short with your partner. He resolves to bring it up with you later, because it makes him worried about your relationship, and he only wants to help. It's one more opportunity for you to feel criticized.

 

Fortunately, it doesn't have to stay this way. You can change the way you experience your family, the world, and yourself.

 

 

Brain Plasticity 

  Although our early experiences lay the foundation for our relational template, and the lens through which we come to view the world, it is possible to change these structures. This is because the brain is "plastic" and remains open to new experiences throughout our lifespan. Every experience you have, including reading this article, changes your brain. And with focused intentionality, you can change many desired aspects of yourself and your relationships. However, these sorts of changes do not happen without sustained effort. This is where the help of a good psychotherapist can be invaluable.

 

Psychotherapy as a Bottom Up Approach  

Psychotherapy does indeed change your brain. It accomplishes this in a very specific and intentional way. One of the ways psychotherapy accomplishes this change is by encouraging a Bottom Up Processing approach.

 

When you explore your relationships with a psychotherapist, you do so in a way that is novel. The topics and the stories may be old news to you, but they are not to your therapist. Consequently,  your therapist will engage with you in the exploration of your relationships and your views from a bottom up and data driven approach. Every therapist, regardless of their particular approach does this-they have to. The reason your therapist has to engage in bottom up processing with you is because this is all new information to your therapist. You are inevitably pulled out of your Top Down approach, into the Bottom Up approach taken by your therapist. This is the "experiential" aspect of therapy and it is crucial. This also explains why simply venting to family members and old friends doesn't work the same as therapy. It is not just a matter of catharsis and gaining insight, though these are both important, it is the experience of exploring familiar relationships in a novel way that changes your brain. 

 

Check back for my next article, where I will discuss in more detail, how the novel experience of psychotherapy changes your brain. In the mean time, you can read more about how psychotherapy works by clicking here.

 

 

 

*This has been written for a more general audience. Accordingly, I have omitted or simplified certain explanations. Leave me a comment, a suggestion or a critique!  

 

 

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