What do you worry about? Perhaps you worry about your health, work, money or about what other people think about you. You may even worry about having 'weird' or unacceptable thoughts and feelings or about bad things happening to you and to other people. Sound familiar?
If you find yourself worried about one or more of these kinds of things, well, you are not alone! We all worry, but for some people worry can get out of control and become excessive and out of proportion to the reality of the situation. If you tend to worry a lot, then you will know from first-hand experience of the negative impact it can have on the quality of your life. The good news is that life does not have to be like this. You can learn how to control your worry and start enjoying life again using techniques from a form of talking therapy called Cognitive Behavioral therapy or CBT to give it its shorthand name. First, let me say something about what worry is, and then outline some of the ways CBT can help you to deal with it.
So, what is worry? For a start, it's important to recognize that not all worry is bad. It can motivate us to deal with problems and issues in our day-to-day lives and even alert us to potential dangers in the world so that we keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Chronic worry, however, is at the heart of all forms of anxiety, particularly generalized anxiety disorder, and research suggests that it is associated with depression. If you worry too much then you are likely to be very familiar with the question, 'What if'? You may find that you get stuck in unhelpful thinking patterns where you imagine and dwell on negative or catastrous consequences to some future event. As a consequence, you might find yourself engaging in a range of behaviors and activities to cope with your worry such as:
· Trying not to think about things
· Avoiding people / situations / or things that you find upsetting
· Seeking reassurance from others
· Compilation lists and gathering excessive amounts of information
· Over-analyzing problems or situations
· Distracting yourself or keeping busy all the time
In CBT, these behaviors are known as' safety behaviors and while they will provide some temporary relief from your worry, in the long-term they are likely to keep you stuck in a distracting and unhelpful cycle or worried. Similarly, you may also have beliefs about your worry that seem logical but which are in fact only serving to perpetuate your worry. Examples of these so called 'positive beliefs' about worry might be things like: Worrying about this problem will help me to find a solution “or” If I prepare for the worst and it does not happen then it's a relief 'or' Worrying shows that I care and am being responsible '. These thoughts may be helpful up to a point, but here's the catch; excessive worry reduces our capacity to act and solve problems and only serves to fuel doubt and more worry. When worry is left unchecked it can take control of your life to the point where your thoughts seem like a whirlwind from which there is no escape. In the long term this can lead to exhaustion and a sense of demoralisation.
But there is a way out of excessive worrying and the distress it brings with it. One useful strategy is to learn to distinguish between productive and unproductive worry. For instance, productive or real event worries are things that can usually be addressed by doing something now, whereas so-called unproductive or hypothetical worries, the 'What if' kinds of worries, are things that can not be addressed by taking action to sort them out in the present. That's where learning to let go of your worries and facing up to your fears comes into play. It can be helpful to make a list of all your worries and then sort them into productive and unproductive worries. Once you do this it can help you figure out which worries you can do something about and which ones do not have an immediate solution. For the latter, it's important to develop strategies to 'let go' of your worries. Perhaps by learning to shift your attention away from worrying and bringing it back to the present moment and what you are doing now or by setting aside limited periods of time during the day where you allow yourself to worry. Easier said than done, I know, but essential if you want to take control of your worry rather than letting it control you.
Another crucial step in overcoming your worry is to gradually stop doing the things that maintain it (ie the 'safety behaviors' noted above) such as avoiding and overanalysing things, seeking reassurance, making excessive lists, distraction and so on. Perhaps you could identify one safety behavior you engage in and try reducing your reliance on it over a period of time. For example, if you tend to seek reassurance from others about your worries you might try refraining from doing this as much as possible and notice what happens.
The above suggestions can be hard to implement but I know from my experience of working with people who suffer from excessive caring that if you work at them, sometimes with the help of an experienced therapist, then in the long term you will learn to manage and overcome your tendency to worry excessively. Keep in mind too that overcoming worry is often about learning to live with uncertainty, which is a fact of life for all of us. Trying to control things that can not be controlled is just a recipe for unnecessary worry. As Michel de Montaigne once said, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.” So, as best you can put worry in its place and start living your life as fully as possible!