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Freud and Stress

Posted 2010-12-28

Self-care during the holidays.

As I was cleaning out my e-mail I came across a forwarded note entitled “Merry Christmas.” Apparently the author was quite angry that people were choosing to say “Seasons’ Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Although there are many interesting elements to this discussion, what intrigues me most is that this e-mail is the perfect example of what Freud calls displacement. Now Freud’s theories were definitely a mixed bag, however his idea of displacement is good common sense. Basically stress can result in difficult emotional reactions, like anxiety, and in order to relieve ourselves of these emotions we change our behavior. Some healthy behaviors might be going snowshoeing, working on our car, or calling a friend. Displacement is an example of unhealthy response: we redirect an explosive emotional reaction towards something or someone that has nothing to do with the original situation.

What does this look like in the real world? After a long, exhausting day of holiday shopping you find yourself blowing up at the clerk for using plastic instead of paper. Really you’re stressed out because you didn’t stop for lunch, spent too much money and left too much for the last minute; but instead of acknowledging that you leave the elderly clerk in tears. After working overtime you come home and yell at your cat for scratching the couch. If you think about it you’re angry about your limited options: overtime or unemployment. But it’s Tiger who ends up hiding for the next week.

The secret to displacement is that although it might feel completely justified in the moment, a little perspective often results in embarrassment and apologies. So this holiday season instead of forwarding angry e-mails, maybe we can take the time to notice when our stress level is elevated and do something healthy for ourselves. Those around us will appreciate our effort!

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