We have all, at one time or another, been overpowered by the beast that is worry. We are bombarded by “what if” thoughts, attacked by nightmarish fantasies about every possible thing that could possibly go wrong. This may be triggered by hearing an awful story, a stressful situation that has arisen, or just a random thought that comes to us, seemingly from nowhere. We feel the weight of this worry: physically, emotionally and mentally. We end up tense and exhausted, anxious and nervous, overwhelmed and fearful. In short, the worry beast can wreak havoc in our life.
At best, we may attempt to distract or calm ourselves from this onslaught of negativity, but there is a nagging feeling that our efforts have been futile and we will be a victim of these thoughts indefinitely. It is difficult not to feel despair when this seems to be the case.
However, the good news is that there is a way to defeat the worry beast. We can learn to work through our worried thoughts to where they are not out of control and creating these negative side-effects. Before we can get to the specifics of what to do to handle worry, we first must understand a little bit about what worry is.
What is worry?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of worry is “to think about problems or fears: to feel or show fear and concern because you think that something bad has happened or could happen.” That is a fairly accurate description of worry but what it misses is the depth of discomfort that worry can cause. Worry falls under the umbrella of anxiety (it is the core piece of the anxiety disorder Generalized Anxiety Disorder) and, like all anxiety issues, it has a tendency to build upon itself to the point of being overwhelming.
Worry is something that happens in the present moment, but it is something that takes us away from the present and into a fantasy future. The things that we are worrying about are not happening to us now, in this moment; instead they take place in a future that is playing out in the theater of our mind. However, our body does not differentiate this and responds physically, as if these worry-based events were happening in reality. We bear the full weight of the stress of these events, no matter how horrific the worried thoughts may be. This is an important fact to know because it drives home how important it is to stop these worried thoughts. If we allow our worried thoughts to run amok, we, in effect, live through a myriad of awful life events. While we cannot control the terrible things that may happen to us in real life, we can control the ones that only occur in the context of our worried thinking.
Worry tends to be a negative presence in our mind due to two processes: catastrophic thinking and avoidant coping. Catastrophic thinking is when we project the direst of outcomes onto what we are worrying about. A worried thought about your child’s poor performance in a class leads to thoughts that they will drop out of school and end up homeless. A worried thought about a project at work leads to thoughts that we are going to be fired and never be able to find another job. While these examples may seem extreme, if you struggle with worry they probably have a fairly familiar ring. Your thoughts go to worst-case scenarios, no matter how far from reality they may be. Avoidant coping is the second process, and this comes from our best attempts to handle our worry. Avoidant coping is defined as an attempt to avoid dealing with something that is causing us distress. In one way, this makes sense. It is grounded in the principle that if something is causing us pain or discomfort, we shouldn’t do that thing. While there is a certain logic to this, it does not work when we are dealing with things in the realm of anxiety. Anxiety tends to grow in the void that our action leaves behind. The net effect of this is that we end up having to avoid more and more things in order to not get anxious. In order to break avoidant coping, we need to learn more direct ways to face and work through our worried thoughts. We will explore this momentarily, but first, let’s work to understand a bit more about worry.
Why do we worry?
So now that we understand thoroughly what worry is, let’s explore why it is there. There is a school of thought called evolutionary psychology. It proposes that the ways in which our minds work are based on the same principles as evolution. Basically, things that help an organism (in this case a person) survive will become prevalent as those who have the trait will be more likely to live long enough to reproduce. Therefore, any function our mind performs must serve some adaptive function.
I find this framework to be very helpful when trying to understand why seemingly unhealthy processes occur. It challenges us to identify the ways in which the process in question would be adaptive or useful. In the case of worry, this is a fairly straightforward explanation. One of the main functions of our brains is to predict what may be harmful to us. This clearly gives us an adaptive advantage. Imagine two of our ancient ancestors: the first one we will name “Gloom.” Gloom demonstrates the ability to worry; in other words, to predict potentially harmful things in the environment. Gloom is also predisposed to seeing or anticipating threat where none really exists. The second of these ancestors we will call ”Sunny.” Sunny loves life and walks through the world completely carefree. Sure, Gloom can be a bit skittish and his cave-dwelling buddies may poke fun at him for being a scaredy cat while Sunny has much more fun in life. However, Gloom is much more likely to accurately assess and avoid dangerous situations even if it is at the cost of missing out on all the fun that Sunny may have due to over-estimating danger in the world. Meanwhile, Sunny is much more likely to inadvertently do something that results in their untimely death; an untimely death that Gloom avoids and goes on to have multiple children while poor Sunny has none. Sure, Sunny may live the more fulfilling, albeit considerably shorter, life, but Gloom ends up being the winner in the procreate-as-much-as-possible-to-keep-our-species-alive contest.
While the process of worry can be an unhealthy thing for modern humans, you can see how it would have given an adaptive advantage to our ancient ancestors. Understanding this role of worry is a key to understanding how to defeat the worry beast. Basically, worry is our brain’s attempt to have us foresee possible negative events. When we attempt to push worried thoughts aside or dismiss them as unreasonable, this does not compute for our brain. So our brain will thrust the worried thought back into our consciousness. You may have been on this worry-go-round before. A worried thought comes up, you suppress it only to have it come up time and time again, despite your repeated efforts to dismiss it.
This is where a process that I call “closing worry loops” kicks in. We need to resolve the worried thought before attempting to dismiss it from our consciousness. If we do this properly (I will discuss how in just a moment), our brain will be able to accept that we have adequately assessed the possible danger and can shut off the alarm bells that are clanging. If a fire alarm goes off, it does not make sense to disconnect the alarm before we have assessed whether there is actually a fire. We would need to first locate the reason the alarm is going off, and then disconnect the alarm. The same process holds true with worry.
Anxious vs Proactive worry
It is helpful here to differentiate between two different types of worry. Proactive worry is a type of worry with which you may not be familiar. It is where we identify potential negatives and make a plan for how we would react and cope if that eventuality occurs. It prompts us to make plans, focus on our resiliency, and generate ideas. Once we have engaged in this type of worry we feel prepared and confident. There may still be ambiguity as to what will happen, but at least we have some ideas about how we might handle whatever may arise. Anxious worry is what we typically refer to when we think of worry. This is a thought about a future negative event that makes us feel anxious. We focus on unanswered “what ifs” and may jump from one negative outcome to another. We generate no ideas on how we can handle things and we are left feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Obviously, the goal is to practice doing more proactive worry and less anxious worry when worried thoughts arise.
Worry Well and Worry Once
One of the best ways to engage in proactive worry and to avoid anxious worry is the process called “worry well and worry once.”
The first step is to identify that you are experiencing a worried thought. What are you worried about? What is the situation that you fear?
Write down your worry and begin the process of identifying how you would handle the situation. What are the possible outcomes? How would each one affect you? What could you do to cope with or prevent each outcome?
What other aspects of this situation are you worried about? Repeat step 2 and each time after it is complete, ask yourself “what else am I worried about with this situation?” Once you are able to answer that question with “nothing else,” proceed to step 4.
You have now completed the “worry well” part (or closed the worry loop) and if a worried thought about this situation comes up again, say to yourself (either out loud if no one is near you or in your head if someone else is around): “I have already worried about this thoroughly and there is no reason to go over it again. I am as prepared to handle this situation as possible and I can be confident that I will handle it to the best of my ability.” Repeat this statement as often as needed. DO NOT re-worry the situation unless you have some new information that drastically changes the situation, for to do so would really be engaging in anxious worry in the guise of worrying well.
Armed with these new tools, you should be able to defeat the worry beast that haunts you. At this point you should:
understand worry and why it exists
be able to identify catastrophic thinking and avoidant coping
know the difference between anxious and proactive worry
know how to worry well and worry once
If you have achieved these things then you should be well equipped to face down the worry beast and grow in confidence that you can defeat it. It takes some practice to break the worry habit, but these concepts should guide you through that process.