Worry is those thoughts and images about what can go wrong. While worry creates anxious and fearful feelings, worry itself isn't a feeling, but the thoughts and images that often follow on the heels of "What-ifing": "What if my son gets in an accident?" "What if the worst happens?" "What if I fail the final?" Worry can be about something with high potential to happen. This kind of worry is fitting and reasonable and may get us to take appropriate action or do some constructive problem solving. Worry can also be about things having very little or no real potential to happen. This can produce unnecessary anxiety and stress.
Why people worry may be given a number of answers. Here are some that come to mind.
If the individuals are obsessive worriers they likely, without much awareness, defend themselves against avoided and unfelt emotions and stress. Their attention is grabbed by their worries rather than avoided and unfelt emotions. Because worries are a trancelike narrowing of attention they frequently sound irrational and improbable. Worry's images and thoughts often repeat and repeat like an endless uncomfortable loop. This excessive repetition is a clue to us that we have something slightly different than anxiety.
Some people believe worrying helps them find solutions, yet worry narrows attention and produces tension, making it difficult to focus and to find creative solutions.
Some individuals don't enjoy being surprised and they believe worry will keep them alert and on guard.
Some people believe it's too difficult to put on the brakes and feel driven to worry. Their thinking is riveted on worry.
Some people believe they SHOULD worry--it's the right and responsible thing to do. Perhaps folks in their family modeled it for them when they were growing up.
Some persons believe if they don't worry, something worse will happen.
A few folks believe there is one perfect answer and by worrying, they will find that answer.
Here are some tried and true potent bromides for worry:
If the worry is obsessive, it might be helpful to connect with any emotions, stress, conflicts, and overwhelm being avoided and feel them. This tends to pull the stuffing out of the compulsive need to worry. See the Avoided Emotion Exercise.
Here are other exercises and processes useful for overcoming worry:
The Thought Chiller. Here we take a mindful approach to our thoughts and write them down, turning off the power behind them.
The Rumination Breaker. We address the distorted thoughts we worry about, challenge them and change them by practicing new realistic thoughts. We may use the Belief Repeater in conjunction with the Rumination Breaker.
Relaxation turns off worry or slows it down. It's hard to feel stressed when doing vagus nerve stimulation exercises like the Dive Reflex or the Longevity Maneuver.
Or we may ask ourselves questions about our worries:
Is this the worst that can happen? Could there be something worse that might happen? Could we stand it, survive it, and maybe even find something rewarding in the worst circumstance? Would life still be worth living afterwards?
Can I accept what's uncertain here as a "fact of life"?
Can I allow this worry? Put it off for another time? Make a brief time to worry and only worry then? Could I make an inventory of my worries and reflect on them during the time I set aside.
Could I still accept myself even if the worst happened? Would others important to me still like or even love me?
What is the evidence my worry is true? Not true?
How might this worse imagined scenerio appear like if viewed realistically or even positively?
What is the actual probability that this fear will come true? What is the percentage of this possibility? Does its possibility mean that it will come true?
What would others say about my worry?
Is my worry useful in anyway? Does it help me or hurt me?
What might I tell a friend who had this worry?
Is my worry a thought distortion or a self-defeating belief? See the Thought Distortion List.
How would this worry appear if I was in an upbeat mood or I was relaxed?
Check out the "what if" style questions we might be asking ourselves. What are the probabilities of these worries actually happening? Slim to none usually. If the worry doesn't respond to reasoning and evidence, it's likely the "what-ifing" is an obsessive defense.
In some instances the worry is alerting us to something that could actually go wrong. There might be something to really be concerned about. Perhaps we need to find some solutions and take constructive action to the end any real difficulties happening.
Some folks will palm excessive worry off as "caring". Caring might be better served in taking required action to head off a problem and not running and rerunning "what if" questions and imagining the worst happening.
Giving up worry may not be easy for some folks because of the following:
Worry, especially the obsessive variety, can be a defense against feeling emotionally overwhelmed. People are often unaware that their worry is covering emotions. People may make the error of attempting to change a compulsive defense (worry and its flurry of "what if" thoughts) instead of feeling and integrating what worry blocks from awareness--the overwhelm, the conflicts, the stress, and aroused emotions.
It doesn't help much that worriers sincerely believe the possibility that something disastrous will occur. "Just suppose______." "What if __________." "Oh my God it's ______________."
Some folks keep worry alive because they believe the act of worrying will actually help us ward off danger or control an uncontrollable situation. (A form of magical thinking)
Some people link worry to their problem solving approach. Worry's tension may help defocus someone from problem solutions and rob them of their creativity because they can't access it due to anxiety and tension.
One of the reasons why worry is so often difficult to stop is because it is propelled by feelings out of our awareness. Some of us may have fleeting anxious images on the edge of awareness. Worry may range from a simple thought or idea entering our mind in the form of a "what-if" question to a continual din of deeply distressing thoughts, like rumination's infernal negative chant.
Simple worries might be like: What if such and such happens?" These simple worries are easier to address. You can go to them directly and ask yourself something like: "What's the worst that might happen? Have I handled something like this previously?"
We better remember too that just because something MIGHT happen does not mean that it will. Luckily we live in the world of probability and not certainty. Very few items in this life are certain. Somewhere in Bartlett's resides the quote: "The only thing in life that's certain is death and taxes."
Some people say worry is a good thing--that it warns us about our future--that we've got to take some appropriate action. Okay on one level worry may serve a useful purpose, but on another it burns down the house cooking the chicken in the fridge. Worry is stressful and can thwart focus and problem solving by distracting us. On one hand "concern" appears more useful and far less stressful than worry. It's better to be concerned about what's important and take care of business than to go over and over the same negative images and thoughts that worry generates.
Concern is differentiated from worry in that concern feels less intense and is less attention grabbing. The tension is weaker with concern so we're more focused and present to take constructive action.
Worry is not only stressful, it also does some of the following:
Blocks us from feeling feelings. This in turn thwarts our gaining valuable emotional information and knowing what to do.
Can interfere with sleep.
Can make someone feel as if they have no control over their thoughts and feelings due to worry's sometimes magnetic and obsessive nature.
Permits only images and thoughts of worse case scenarios. We don't see other possibilities or even probabilities.
Stresses us and can lower immune response.
Because worry may create sleep loss and tension, it can create fatigue and down moods--leading to seeing more negative possibilities.
Distracts us from real problems that better be addressed.
Can lead to such magical thoughts as: "If I worry about something--that something won't happen." This magical thinking won't prevent anything. Also some folks worry: "If I don't worry, then bad things will happen."
Stopping worry isn't all that easy. Some of us TRY not to worry. This tactic is much like trying not to think of purple hippos. Worry goes back on auto-pilot.
Worry generally works like this:
You ask a "what if” question. You picture a worse case scenario. It repeats and repeats and repeats automatically. You feel really tense and stressed. Your adrenaline will kick in raising your stress. If you grow tired, then more worried thoughts begin to intrude.
"What if my zit turns out to be skin cancer?"
"What if there's a tsunami the day of my snorkeling party"
There are many approaches to dealing with worry. Some are in the arena of "reasoning with a worry" like:
Knowing that Murphy's Law doesn't hold water.
Having an understanding of probability or odds.
Worry's largest key is not being able to take or stand uncertainty.
Knowing we can't mind-read the universe and its intentions.
Knowing the limits of our control or becoming more comfortable with a lack of control.
The above may work with mild worry. I'd opt for dealing directly with feeling and desensitizing the overwhelm and aroused feelings that your worry is helping to suppress. You might ask yourself what a person might feel in order to worry like this. Or you may get a felt sense of the feelings operating just below your level of worry. Often by writing your worry beliefs down you'll temporarily suspend them and in doing so you'll leave yourself open to the feelings your worries are suppressing. When you fully experience these feelings with no intention of getting rid of them or keeping them, the worries do an el foldo. They have nothing to empower them.
Worry has a fuzzy logic. Consider the following:
Worry will keep me from being surprised.
I must worry if anything bad might happen.
My worried negative scenarios have to be true because I feel they're true.
I can't take uncertainty--I NEED to know for sure...with certainty.
Because what is happening now feels like an emergency, it is an emergency.
Bad things happen to me because I'm a bad person.
I can't take or stand failure.
I must get rid of my bad feelings and worries immediately.
A larger challenge chronic worriers often face is not being able to accept uncertainty. Here are some questions persons struggling with uncertainty better face:
Could I accept uncertainty as a "fact of life"?
Could I live with the outside chance that something bad MIGHT happen even if it's extremely unlikely to occur?
What are the pros and cons of demanding certitude?
Is it even possible to be certain about anything?
Just because you are uncertain, why do you predict negative scenarios?
While "don't worry--be happy" doesn't make much sense to a worrier, the idea of trading worry for "concern" might. Being concerned about something legitimate, going into the problem solving mode, and taking appropriate action will be more helpful than wheel-spinning worry. If the worry is chronic and compulsive, it's best to go beneath the surface worry and locate any overwhelm or aroused emotions it's blocking. Then desensitize them. Here the obsessive worry and the stress it engenders dies out.
Take care, Steve