How worrying works, and how to overcome it
Last week, we started talking about Generalised Anxiety. This week, we’re going to break anxiety down a bit further, and really break down how worrying works.
Worrying is essentially self-talk; you talk to yourself repeatedly about what negative things might happen in the future. In a way it’s a survival tactic; being vigilant of all possible future threats and attempting to problem solve how you’d deal with things that hadn’t happened yet. However, often a solution doesn’t arise and you may be left thinking you won’t be able to cope if your worst fear happens. Actual problem solving happens in a much different way, which we will discuss soon. So, worrying is basically repetitive negative thinking where you get stuck, caught, locked, or trapped in your negative thoughts about future bad things that might happen.
“What If…” Worries
This is a very common form that worries often appear in. What if I can’t get to my appointment on time? What if I fail my exam? What if I can’t do the job? What if something happens to my child? What if I get anxious during my interview? What if I get sick? As you notice, these “what ifs” usually involve worrisome thoughts about external things like work and family or internal physical things such as illness.
The problem with “What if” worries is that they usually cause our negative thinking to snowball out of control, and looks like this:
- What if I lose my job?
- If I lose my job, I won’t be able to support my family.
- If I can’t support my family they’ll be disappointed in me.
- Then they won’t be able to stand having me around
- They may leave me.
- I’ll have no one
- I’ll have nothing
- I can’t lose my job
- What if I’m next?!
We all worry, that’s a fact. And we all usually worry about very similar things. What makes worry troublesome is when we worry about things longer than we should or have a hard time disengaging from it. While most people worry about troublesome things, for the most part these thoughts are short-lived and give way to a different thought topic popping into mind. Worry becomes unhelpful when it’s very frequent and becomes difficult for us to control or disengage from.
What Triggers Worrying?
Worrying can be triggered by my many things like:
- Seeing specific images such as in the newspaper or on television
- Hearing specific information such as on the radio or during a conversation
- Being in certain situations like having to make a decision or perform a specific task
Some triggers may be less obvious as well, like thoughts or images that seem to pop into your head out of the blue. For example, “What if I left the iron on?” If you then think “I probably didn’t” and decide not to worry about it. Chances are you’ll probably forget about it and the thought slips out of mind. However, if you instead begin to chase the thought further… “The ironing board might catch fire and that will spread to the whole house. The house might burn down and then I’ll lose everything!” Now a “worry episode” has been triggered.
What Maintains Worrying?
Positive beliefs about worrying
Two types of unhelpful beliefs keep us stuck in a worry cycle: positive and negative beliefs about worrying. While most people don’t like that they worry so much, they often hold positive beliefs that it’s beneficial and helpful. These could include:
- Worrying helps me find solutions to problems
- Worrying motivates me to do things
- Worrying prepares me for the worst
- Worrying helps me avoid bad things
- Worrying shows I care
This is why we tend to pull worrisome thoughts towards ourselves and listen to them more; because we think it’s a helpful thing to do.
Negative beliefs about worrying
We may also worry about the fact that we worry, and be concerned that this is “bad.” These thoughts can include:
- Worrying is dangerous and will cause my physical or mental harm
- Worrying is uncontrollable and will take over
These thoughts can become distressing and create even more concerns keeping this negative thought process going. This makes us want to push worrisome thoughts away which actually makes the thoughts feel stronger and leads to more worrying.
When we worry, it’s hard to draw attention away from bothersome thoughts to focus on what’s in front of us. This is caused by a mix of not realising you’re engaging in the thoughts, and also because we think it’s helpful to think about more things. Focusing attention on negative thoughts plus trouble disengaging attention from these thoughts keeps us engaged in our worry and just fuels the fire.
People who worry often will attempt unsuccessfully to stop their thoughts using a number of strategies such as:
- Suppressing worries
- trying to reason with worrisome thoughts
- frantically distracting themselves
- Seeking excessive reassurance from others to ease their concerns
- Excessive information seeking
- Excessive list making
- Using drugs, alcohol, or food to dull the worry
- Avoiding situations that trigger worry
These strategies rarely work because ultimately they are all a form of thought suppression. Suppressing thoughts actually causes the thought to occur more. For example, if I say don’t think about elephants, what are you going to do? Only think about elephants.
In the upcoming posts, we’ll talk about each of these ideas in more depth, and teach you how to address your positive and negative beliefs about worrying, how to focus your attention on the present instead of on worrisome thoughts, and how to develop more helpful ways of dealing with them.
Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.
This article was adapted from:
Saulsman, L., Nathan. P., Lim, L., Correia, H., Anderson, R. & Campbell, B. (2015). What? Me Worry!?! Mastering your worries. Perth, Western Australia: Centre for Clinical Interventions.