Many people with anxiety worry about things that never happen. Their minds come up with a string of worrying and alarming possibilities. One worry feeds on another until it is impossible to think of anything else apart from the threats and risks that lie ahead. The more we worry, the worse we feel and the worse we feel the more we tend to think in an anxious and worried way.
Worry is one of the greatest enemies of a good mood. The irony is that most of the time we are worrying about things that never happen. All this worry and anxiety turns out to be unnecessary. We restrict our lives and prevent ourselves from doing things we enjoy or that are fulfilling, because we worry about things that never happen, or that turn out to be nothing like as bad as we imagined. We worry about things that were never that important to start with anyway. Even when, on occasion, our fears were justified, the worry and anxiety rarely helped.
Worry is not healthy
Worry is not only unhealthy, but it also wastes time and energy. Try to think about some of the ways that worry can affect your thinking, your behaviour your body and your feelings.
Some ideas are listed below:
How worry affects your body:
- It makes you tense and anxious.
- Worry makes you exhausted and tired.
- Worry reduces your ability to sleep well and relax.
- It leads to headaches neck pain and back pain.
How worry affects your behaviour:
- It leads you to do things less confidently and be less confident.
- Worry makes you rely more on other people and less on yourself.
- It makes you less independent.
- Worry interferes with your performance.
- Worry makes you less efficient.
- Worry makes you over careful, or it can sometimes lead you to be careless and clumsy.
How worry affect your thinking:
- Worry makes you problem focused, with the result that your mind leaps from one anxiety to the next.
- Worry interferes with your concentration and your ability to focus.
- Worry keep you looking out for problems, disasters or difficulties. It focuses your attention onto yourself and your own concerns. It makes you indecisive
- Worry increases your ability to notice things and to become anxious about these more than more important things. The result is selective attention.
- Worry makes you more pessimistic, so you tend to fear and predict the worst.
How worry affects your feelings and emotions:
- Worry makes you feel overwhelmed, with the sensation that you are unable to cope.
- Worry makes you feel confused and muddled.
- Worry makes you feel fearful and apprehensive.
- Worry makes you feel out of control.
Why do people worry?
Worry is so common amongst the population that one wonders whether it serves a useful purpose. A reason why it is so difficult to stop worrying is that one has a sneaking suspicion that some good may come out of it, and this feeling is hard to ignore. Even though people often say to themselves and to others: "why don't you stop worrying. It won't do any good and there's no point to it. All that worrying will get you nowhere". However there is still something compelling about the process of worry that makes it a hard habit to stop.
Worry and anxiety may provide some useful purpose.
Worry is a danger signal and it can alert you to the possibility that something is wrong. For example, that pain that you are experiencing in your abdomen may indicate that you have a serious health problem. You therefore, go to the doctor who is able to investigate and treat the problem successfully. When you're driving, the fact that the car pulls to the left could mean that you have a flat tire. Ignoring these warning signs could be unwise and serious. Worry is useful if it makes you pay attention and take notice of a problem. However it is not useful to be so paralysed with fear that you are unable to take action, as you might be if you get carried away with your imagination. It is useful to have a flashing warning light but only if you do something to turn it off.
Worry is an action trigger.
Anxieties and worry can make you take action. The sensation of feeling anxious is unpleasant, and until you start to deal with particular problem that you worrying about then you will continue to worry. For example if you have some important work to do that you are putting off, the worry can lead you to stop procrastinating, and get on with the important tasks at hand. You then feel better, when you have completed the work. In this situation worry is useful providing it is turned into action.
Worry can be the lesser of two evils.
Worry can be an unfocused and vague process when it is compared with the vivid and extremely alarming mental images that can be produced by your mind. To explain further, when somebody is late home rather than seeing and imagining the horrors of the accident that you fear, you worry " what if they have had an accident". This form of worrying can prevent the alarming images from appearing and by doing so it may be the preferred option, even though it keeps the worst imagined fears at bay at the cost of continued anxiety and worry.
In summary, therefore, worry can sometimes be helpful, can sometimes help you to start thinking about how to cope or deal with the problem and sometimes it can make you feel better. Sometimes there is a superstitious nature behind worry. By this I mean the thought that " unless I worry something bad will happen" or " worrying may prevent things going wrong. This form of worry is only useful if it leads to provoking a strategy for action.
Useful worry leads to action. All other worry is unnecessary and pointless.
Worry can be a self-perpetuating process.
Case study: Jane - a chronic worrier
Everybody including Jane described herself as a born worrier. When at school she worried about what her friends thought of her and her exams. When she started work in a library she worried that her colleagues and the visitors to the library could see how nervous and anxious she was. She thought none of them had similar worries. Even when she became aware that everyone has worries from time to time this was a no help to her. Her anxiety dominated her life to such an extent that she was never free from disquiet. She agonised over whether she was doing her job properly, whether she would be promoted, and she brooded about whether others would recognise her talents or not. She concerned herself about whether she would sleep at night, and was and was disturbed by thoughts that she may not be able to work properly because she was too tired the next day, if she did not sleep. She was anxious about her aches and pains and felt depressed. She worried about her health and agonised over whether worries would make her ill. She was beset with worries about her partner John and whether he would become fed up with her. She felt uneasy in her relationship. She was tormented by thoughts that members of the family may become ill. No sooner did one worry end than another anxiety took its place. If she woke in the night she was bedevilled by worries as all her fears came into her mind at at the same time. She was exhausted by her worries.
What was causing her anxiety to continue unrelented? Was it genetics? Was Jane just made that way and destined to remain anxious all her life? Medical research suggests that there is an inherited component that affects our tendency to worry. Psychologists, who specialise in anxiety disorders, believe that our experiences in childhood can affect our tendency to anxiety and worry. It is known that many people who have had frightening experiences in childhood go on to cope very well as adults, with little sign of anxiety, but we tend to hear less about these people than about those who suffer from anxiety later in life. So Jane may have inherited a tendency to worry but this does not mean that she cannot change. It is definitely possible to treat anxiety and learn how to overcome worry.
How to eliminate 90% of your Worries.
There are three types of worry that can be eliminated because they are not worth worrying about and these three types of concern account for the great majority of people's fears.
It is far too easy to spend one's time worrying about things that are unimportant and trivial. When you find yourself worrying, ask yourself how important is the problem or the matter that I am worrying about. Here are three benchmarks to help you answer this question.
- The time perspective. Ask yourself "will this problem that I'm concerning myself about matter in 5 years or 100 years from now?"
- "Where on the spectrum of bad experiences is the outcome that I am worried about?"
- Ask yourself "just how much is this worry worth?"
People, when they are feeling anxious and worried often fill their minds with all kinds of potential disasters and horrors. " what if this happened......." " supposing that......" of course it is possible that the imagined events that people worry about could happen. But in reality most are very unlikely to happen, and in fact rarely do. If you find yourself worrying that something awful may happen then answer yourself with the response: "supposing it didn't happen". Dealing with life's existing problems is enough to keep us busy, without wasting energy and brainpower on problems which do not exist.
Try not to worry about unresolved problems.
How to deal with persistent worries
If you could stop yourself from worrying about the unimportant, the unlikely and the unresolved, then it is quite likely that 90% of your worries disappear. However this is easier said than done. People find that worries are remarkably resistant to rational reasoning and often continue to weigh on the mind despite their best efforts to keep them in their place.
Some worries really are significant and realistic. There are two kinds of strategy which psychologists recommend for managing significant and persistent worries. These are strategies for letting them go and strategies for examining the worries.
Strategies to help you let worries go
Turn your worries into action. There are two types of worry that are not worth worrying about: Firstly, those that you can do something about and secondly those that you can't. This is obvious but it summarises a simple but extremely powerful way of tackling persistent worries. Worry is useful when it forces you to tackle and resolve problems which need solving. However it is possible to tackle and solve problems without the unpleasant side-effect of worry. Therefore the first step is to transform your worries into problems and then develop strategies for solving them. If nothing can be done about the worry then learn to accept this. In the words of Dale Carnegie: " cooperate with the inevitable".
A decision tree for worry
One structured way of tackling a worry is to ask yourself a branching series of questions that help you to let the worry drop. Psychologists sometimes suggest three questions to ask yourself in this worry decision tree.
- The first question is: " what am I worrying about?"
This helps you to pinpoint your worry clearly. When you have thought this through and clearly identified your worry then ask yourself the second question:
- The second question is: " is there anything that I can do about this?"
The brutally honest answer may be "No". If this is the case then you can be certain that you are gaining nothing by continuing to worry. Accept the inevitable and distract yourself by doing something absorbing instead. If, however, there is something that you can do about the worry, then consider the possibilities. If necessary make a list. Then ask yourself the third question.
- The third question is: " is there anything that I can do right now?"
If there is something practical that you can do immediately, then proceed to do this by occupying yourself with whatever it is practical that you can do immediately to help sort out the problem. If there is nothing you can do immediately, then plan a time to take appropriate action. It often helps to write yourself a reminder which allows you to stop worrying. Finding out clearly that further worry is not productive makes it easier for you to drop the worrying. When you've completed each step, then distract yourself away from the worry of finding something which is absorbing and distracting to do instead.
If you are finding it difficult to work out a decision tree on your own then it may be useful to enlist help from friends in order to help to clarify the worry and plan what needs to be done.
Crowd out your worries
The human mind has only a limited capacity for focus; it can only pay full attention to one thing at a time. Distraction is an excellent technique for dealing with worry. In other words keeping yourself busy, keeping your mind fully occupied leaves no room for worry. You will probably find that your attention drifts from time to time and you then need to redirect it when this happens, but the busier you are easier this will be.
It is important however, not to misuse distraction as a way of avoiding thinking about the problems or to avoid tasks that need to be done. Procrastination can feed worry.
Veto night time worrying
Worries tend to seem much worse in the middle of the night. Therefore ban night-time worries. When a worry pops into your head at night say to yourself: " this is not the time". See this article for more about insomnia and night-time worries:
Place your worries in a box
One technique that psychologists suggest in treating anxiety, is to imagine placing each of your worries one by one in a box, and then closing the lid, or hang hanging them on a tree and allowing the wind to blow them away. Other useful mental images for getting rid of worries are to throw them in handfuls into a river and watch them float away, or throw them on to bonfire and watch them burn up in flames. If you're worried that you will forget something important then get it out of your head and write it down on paper, where it cannot get lost and can be properly dealt with later at the right time.
Make a wall around your worries
If you are overcome with worries then set aside a regular time each day to worry. If you find yourself worrying at other times of the day then tell yourself to postpone the worry to the "worry time" and focus on what you're doing there and then or on what is happening around you instead. When your "worry time" comes, then tackle each worry as a problem to solve. This strategy helps deal with the worry in two ways. It builds a wall around the process and turns the worry into something more constructive. Strangely, some people then find that they are unable to worry at their "worry time" and their "worry time" turns out to be trouble-free. If this is the case then your worry has found its own level, and you do not need to worry that it will sink too low: the alarm bells will ring automatically when you need them.
Strategies for examining vague fears
Sometimes anxieties and worries are too nebulous to work with, and it is difficult to know how to deal with them. At an unconscious level you may be too frightened to face the worry directly. However eventually this will result in more problems than it solves because the deep fear will continue to return as an unresolved anxiety. In order to be tackled the underlying fear has to be faced directly.
Anxious people sometimes find that their fears are nameless and they then like to be reassured by others or by doing what seems to be quite irrational. The problem is that if you always avoid the fear, or find something irrelevant to do that makes you feel better, then the anxieties cannot be laid to rest and the bad feelings may become overwhelming.
In this situation it can help to ask yourself three sets of questions:
- When did the worries start? What triggered it on this occasion?
- What is so bad about that? What does it mean to me?
- What is the worst that could possibly happen? By asking ourselves "what is the worst that can happen?" then we are able to place limits on our worries. And in this case we find that the worst that we fear is less terrible than the vague, nebulous un-articulated fears. Once we know the worst, we are able to face it directly and work out what to do in a sensible rational way.
Continued in this second article about ways to treat anxiety and worry: How to stop worrying article 2