The Anatomy of a Worry

The following content is a summary of information contained in The Cancer Survivor’s Companion:  Practical ways to cope with your feelings after cancer by Dr. Frances Goodhart and Lucy Atkins.  While the book is from the perspective of cancer patients, I believe that much of the information on worrying is applicable to all of us “worriers”.

We all worry.  It’s part of being human.  But if we look closely at a worry, what is it?  How does it work?  What is it made up of?  How do I cope with it?  Can I make it go away?  One way of dealing with a challenge is to intimately understand it–so let’s dissect a worry and see what makes it tick!

What Is A Worry?

Finances…health…job…family members…what others think of us…I bet that we can all give a list of what the topics that we worry about, but what actually is a worry?  Goodhart and Atkins define a worry as “a natural, instinctive, human response to a perceived threat”.  When we worry, we are afraid that something negative is going to happen.  Worries are future-driven.

While worrisome thoughts may cross our minds, worrying becomes a problem when we can’t stop and begin to ruminate on specific ideas.  These thoughts start to take over all of our brain space to the point that we can’t think about anything else. When worrying becomes out of control, we can’t determine between big and small things to worry about–we worry about them all equally.  Our sense of perspective is gone.

Worrying is such a common, human experience that you can buy something to do your worrying for you.  A Worry Bird!  They also come in a charm bracelet version, so you can take it with you!

How Does It Work?

There are four parts to a worry:  thoughts, behaviour, feelings and body sensations.  They are all inter-related and play off of each other.  A body sensation (perhaps a muscle spasm or stomach ache) triggers a thought about a threat which leads to feelings of fear.  This fear may then cause us to stop what we’re doing and focus on the subject that is worrying us (I’m getting sick or my boss wants to get rid of me…), then we’re off to the worry races.

Treating Worry as a Science Experiment

The key to coping with a worry is to learn to handle each of it’s parts:  thoughts, behaviour, feelings and body sensations.  When we can do that, we can break the cycle and decrease the control that worries have over our lives.

One of the ways to get a handle on worry behaviour is to treat it like a science experiment.  The more we know about an activity, the better able we are to change it.  When you find yourself caught in a worry, pay attention.  When did the worry start?  What were you doing at the time?  Was the trigger a feeling, action, body sensation or thought?  As we gather more information, we can start to see trends and triggers.

It’s Usually About Our Thoughts

For most of us, the worry trigger is our thoughts that are fed by thought traps.  Here are some common thought traps that lead us down the path of worrying.

  • Mind reading:  We are mind reading when we are making judgements about what others are thinking.  (“I know that she’s mad at me because she didn’t return my text”.)
  • Fortune telling:  None of us are able to predict the future.  When we make negative assumptions about what will happen, we are giving in to worry.
  • Thinking the worst:  When we are in a worry cycle, we never think the best, but of the most negative possible outcome.  (“My boss is looking for any reason to fire me…if I’m late, I’m going to lose my job.”)
  • Labelling yourself:  These are all the negative “I am” statements that we beat ourselves up with…”I’m lazy”, “I’m dumb”…
  • If…then thinking:  Logic stops being our friend when we link it to thinking the worst.  “If I don’t hear from the recruiter today, then I didn’t get the job.”
  • Should and oughts:  When we ‘should’ or ‘ought’ ourselves, we are putting unrealistic expectations or demands on ourselves.   “Even thought I’m feeling overwhelmed, I should be taking care of everyone else.”
  • Selective thinking:  When we only remember the negative parts of an interaction or situation and forget the positive parts, we are falling into the trap of selective thinking.

Now that we have gathered information, what’s next?

Coping Strategies

One you know your triggers, you are on the way to getting the upper hand on your worry.

If your trigger is a thought:

  • Write down your actual thought.
  • Compare the thought to any of the thought traps listed above.
  • Problem solve about what you can do, if your actual worry became real.
  • Being able to do this exercise takes practice, so in the beginning you can work with someone your trust.

If your trigger is a body sensation:

  • Slow your breathing–counting your breaths as you breath deeply is a useful technique.
  • Exercise–go for a walk, dance around your room, do a few yoga poses–anything that will help to release the energy surge that often accompanies worrying.
  • Relaxation techniques.  There are many guided relaxation exercises on-line.  Check out this link for an example.

If your trigger is a feeling:

Here’s a method for dealing with negative feelings.  Feelings are energy–they arrive, peak, and subside.  When we can recognize their pattern, we can practice sitting with them until they move on.

For example:  When a feeling of fear arrives, try not to get hooked into the ‘story’ of the fear, but watch the ‘fear’.  What does fear feel like in your body?  Do you feel hot or cold?  Does it sit in a particular part of your body that leads to a negative body sensation?  If you don’t feed your fear with thoughts, how big does it get?  How long does it last?  Over time, you will be able to ‘ride the wave’ of feelings/emotions.

If your trigger is a behaviour:

Sometimes a worry begins with an action.  For example, if you are coping with an illness, researching information on the internet may trigger worries about possible diagnosis or outcomes.

Once you know what the triggering behaviour is, you can avoid the behaviour when possible.

While worries are a fact of life, but they don’t have to let them control us.  We can get the upper hand!

And now…some classic Bobby McFerrin…enjoy!

 

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