Get off your worry cycle

Many tactics exist to help combat worry.

I stumbled on to a website called “The Worry Company: The World’s Leading Provider of Worrying Services."

The title page reads: “Forget your worries, your worry days are over. Let us worry for you and your friends. Our company is dedicated to lifting the burden of worries from your shoulders. By becoming a member of The Worry Company, you officially transfer all of your worries to a highly trained professional who will worry for you.  our worries will be declared null and void. They will be entered into our computerized book of worries for a period of one year and we will worry for you. P.S. We only use certified worriers.”

Don’t you wish it were that easy to get rid of worry? The next time you worry about your pregnancy, your children or grandchildren, you just text The Worry Company and you’re carefree. 

When you’re waiting on the lab results from the biopsy, you just release it to a certified worrier and you’re cool as a cucumber. We smile at that idea because we know that it’s a gimmick.  

Most of us wish we worried less. Some of us just worry occasionally; for others it’s a career. A certain amount of worry is necessary for survival; it helps us anticipate future hazards and prepare for them. 

“Worry is like a smoke detector built into our brains”; explains author and worry expert Edward Hallowell, M.D. “It serves to keep us out of danger.” For example, if it’s 1:00 a.m. and your teenage daughter is not home from a date, a reasonable level of concern might well propel you out of bed to call her boyfriend, her friends, or even the police.  

Worrying is healthy and appropriate when it motivates you and leads you to attempt to resolve a problem in a productive, adaptive manner. Many of us, however, worry far too often and far too easily.

We are forever yelling “FIRE!” within our minds. We “catastrophize,” convincing ourselves that a twinge of indigestion is a sign of impending appendicitis, that a scolding from the boss signals the end of a career.

Below are some practical suggestions. If your worry persists or is severe, consult with your doctor or a professional counselor. 

TAKE CONSTRUCTIVE ACTION

Often the best cure for worry is to take action. If you’re worried about the test, you study; if you’re worried about finances, you work out a new budget; if you’re worried about your health, you go to the doctor’ if you’re worried about your marriage, you make sacrifices. Non-worriers will say “I fix what I can, then I put the rest out of my mind.” It’s awfully hard for worriers to put anything out of their minds.  

Sort your concerns into those you can influence and those you can’t, and focus your energy on the former. Jot down a list of possible solutions, sift through them, and work toward implementing the best options.  

MINIMIZE THE WHAT-IFS

A favorite expression of the worrier is “What-if.” What-if the stock market crashes? What-if my kid’s marriage falls apart? What-if I make a fool of myself at the meeting?

In short, we overestimate the likelihood of trouble. One way to neutralize the “what-ifs” is by knowing the odds Ask yourself: How likely is it that what I’m worrying about is going to happen? 

Ironically, many of us worry less about not putting on our seat belts or going to our doctor for a regular physical than the remote probability of events like our airplane crashing or contacting some rare disease. Think back five years. What were your major worries? How many of them actually came about?

CUT OUT YOUR CATASTROPHIZING

At the same time we overestimate our vulnerability, we underestimate our ability to cope should disaster strike. Example, “IF I lose my job, I’ll wind up in a box on the street.” “If I don’t get into that college, my life will be totally ruined.”

We can shrink big worries into smaller, more manageable ones by asking ourselves: "If the feared outcome did occur, what could I actually do to cope?” Example: “Losing my job would be embarrassing and it would be financially tight until I found another position. But I would eventually find another good position if I looked hard enough.”

In the four-minute video Fireflies, my son Blake models the use of the therapeutic technique of “de-catastrophizing.” Take a moment to watch Fireflies now.

SHARE YOUR WORRIES

Another person provides a reality check. Your imagination can go wild, just as it does when you’re in the dark, imagining bad guys everywhere. Sharing your worry to another person is like turning on a flashlight, you can see the bad guys aren’t there. It gives us some perspective and greater feelings of control and hope.

RECOGNIZE THE LIMITS OF YOUR CONTROL

One study found that the average person’s anxiety is focused 40 percent on things that will never happen, 30 percent on the past that cannot be changed, 12 percent on other people’s opinions that cannot be controlled, 10 percent about health; which only gets worse when we worry about it, and 8 percent of worry is about real problems that will be faced. That means over 90 percent of the time worry is about things we cannot control!

One step in becoming more comfortable without having control is recognizing the extent of your control. Ask yourself, “To what extent can I control other people’s personalities? Traffic? The speed of elevators? The weather? Stopping people from acting like idiots?”

DISTRACT YOURSELF

Move away from circular mental activity and get out of your head by shifting gears to something that requires focused concentration. Your distraction could be watching a funny or engrossing movie, reading a good book, cooking something you like, gardening, doing carpentry, -- any involvement that can hold your attention and take you away from your worry.

PRACTICE YOUR FAITH 

If you are religious, pray every day, even several times a day. You can pray anywhere - in the shower, as you drive, in a boring meeting, while you’re getting your hair cut, or standing in line. Talk to God. This is good for your soul.

LIVE IN THE MOMENT

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to be a highly effective practice for reducing the frequency of negative intrusive worries. On the New Directions website, you can listen to several guided acceptance-based mindfulness meditation techniques.

Mindfulness meditation practices involve the process of allowing thoughts to come into our mind, without the struggle. Instead we learn to observe, acknowledge and then accept our mind’s incessant clamoring. We accept worry for what it is, negative predictions which are thoughts, not reality. To sample these techniques click on this link and listen to “Three Minutes to Relax.” 

WRITE DOWN YOUR WORRIES

Writing about worrisome experiences can reduce stress-related symptoms.  By writing down your worries, you begin to feel that you’re more in control of them. Much worrying goes on in a somewhat vague, ill-defined manner. By committing worries to paper, you’re dealing with them in a more direct way.  Instead of floating out there somewhere, they’re now in a concrete form, recorded forever

Get off your worry cycle 2

Writing down your worries can reduce stress-related symptoms.

Confine your journaling time to 20 minutes. Let your imagination run wild during this period. Afterward, if an upsetting thought arises, file it away for the next day’s session. If you tend to worry in the middle of the night, keep a pad by your bed so you can write down worries that come up.

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS

Worry is often about trying to solve something that is not solvable at the moment. The key to “worrying well” is not to abstain completely, but to keep it within the normal or good-worry range.

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Dr. Blake Wagner is a clinical psychologist and president of New Directions Counseling Center in Mansfield. New Directions provides employee assistance and wellness services to over 30 local employers.