So, because we tend to have positive beliefs about worry, when we experience a negative trigger (either internally (ex: a thought or a physical feeling) or externally (ex: an email from work)), our brain subconsciously says, “Hey, we need to worry here” and that starts that worry tree I described in the previous post. And what is worry? Ultimately, I see worry as a mental behavior that arises as a result of envisioning all the worst-case-possible scenarios that could come up. Since these scenarios are pretty scary to be facing (or that we believe we may be facing), our brains try to do what they normally do when we’re facing a problem that’s causing anxiety: they try to problem-solve. If you think about it, this is a pretty normal reaction for us in regular life. If you don’t like the colour of your bedroom walls, you figure out what colour you like and you paint it. If you’re stuck in traffic coming home, you decide to figure out a detour. Solving problems is something your brain is good at. Unfortunately, in the case of worry, we’re trying so hard to problem-solve that we lose sight of whether the problem is even something that could be solved. So here we are trying to come up with solution after solution to fix the “problem,” but, almost by definition, this is a problem that can’t be solved because it’s often so far in the future that we have no control over it currently. If the problem was actually facing us or was happening in the very near future, we would see that as a current problem (the trunk of the worry tree I talked about in the first post), and that would be a time for us to use our problem-solving skills to figure out what to do. In this case, I wouldn’t even consider the behavior as worry.
However, worry occurs when we’re trying to problem-solve potential problems, or the branches of the worry tree. For instance, in the example I gave in my previous post, the individual worrying about getting the project finished the next day could actually plan and problem-solve to make that go as smoothly as possible. It is a current problem that he or she has some control over. However, it is not possible (or useful) to prepare for potentially losing his or her job and then not being able to find another. That hasn’t happened yet, and it is only one possible outcome out of a virtually infinite number of possible outcomes. People who don’t struggle with worry may have these possible outcomes cross their minds, but they usually let them go, saying, “I’ll cross that bridge if I come to it.” Unfortunately, for those of us who worry, that problem becomes just as important as the project that needs to get done tomorrow. So our brain starts to think about what we would do if that happened, but that just gets us into more and more worry, as we envision worse scenarios, and we keep trying to problem-solve those. Instead of just letting these worry thoughts go, we engage with them and give them importance, and they are kept front and centre in our minds.
So now envision this scenario: your brain is now crowded with terrible potential future events that it feels it needs to fix, but almost all of them are out of its control. That’s going to bring on some pretty terrible anxiety, right?. And even though the real way “out” of this is to focus on the problem that can be solved (the trunk of the worry, or in our example above, finishing the project the next day), we have so many other “focuses” that we’re really ending up very unfocused. Imagine your brain is a laptop and you have a bunch of programs running all at once. How effective is that computer? Unfortunately, that experience of being slower, more confused, etc. only serves to make us more anxious that we can’t think clearly or figure out a solution. Not a great scenario, is it?
So what do we do? In a future post, we’ll talk about the behaviours that usually come next (e.g., reassurance-seeking, over-preparing, avoidance, etc.) and how they are usually helpful in reducing anxiety in the short-term but cause more problems in the long-term. But for now, let’s focus on the worry tree again, to get a sense of where we can steer ourselves back on track. If one of the major problems with worry is that we are focusing on problems that may never happen and that we don’t have control over anyway, we need to start to recognize when we are doing this and redirect our attention to what we can do something about. Going back to the computer analogy, we want to close some of the other applications that we shouldn’t have open at the moment so that things run more effectively.
The best way to do this is to first write your worries down. This alone can be extremely helpful because when worries are bouncing around in our heads, we not only have very little control or focus on them, but our brains also have a tendency to run important things over and over in our minds so we don’t forget them. For example, if you go to the grocery store to get a number of items but you don’t have a list, what do you do while you’re in the store? You repeat that list over and over in your mind. Once you get to the bottom of the list, your brain will automatically think of the top of the list again so that it reassures you that you remember what you need to get. But what happens when you write that list down? Now your brain no longer cycles through it over and over because it knows that things won’t be forgotten. In the same way, writing worries can tell your brain that this potential problem that it thinks might happen is in your awareness, it’s written down, and you will solve it eventually. That can actually allow the brain to stop ruminating on the worry a little bit.
But just writing worries down won’t solve everything, of course. The next step is to take a moment with each of the worries that you’ve written to categorize them as either a current or potential problem. Remember, current problems are problems that you have some ability to solve within the next day. Anything else is a potential problem. This is actually deceptively simple, as our brains are very good at convincing us that our potential problems are really current problems. So if I was worried that I might end up getting cancer in the future, my brain could try to tell me that this is in fact a current problem because I could start exercising today, and eat a lot of antioxidants, and cut stress from my life, etc. But getting cancer is not in my control and it’s not something that would be valuable for me to problem-solve right now. So remember, from my perspective, any worry that we can actually do something about in the next 24 hours is a current problem. Anything else is a potential problem.
So what do we do with this now? Well, the current problems actually need to be problem-solved. We need to focus our attention and great ability to figure out solutions on this issue that actually can be, and needs to be, resolved. What about those potential worries that were getting in the way? Those we need to learn to let go of. We need to learn to say what non-worriers say: “I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.” In future posts, we’ll talk about how worry behaviours rob us of our confidence in ourselves, which makes it tougher to believe that we’ll cross that bridge safely. And we’ll also learn techniques like mindfulness meditation to let thoughts go. But for now, just practice labeling the thoughts as current or potential. And as much as you can, direct your focus on to the current worries. When you notice the focus drifts to a potential worry, label it as that and turn again to the current worry. The more you do this, the more your brain will get in the habit of first questioning whether a thought is useful to engage with, which will make it easeier and easier to focus on what you can do well.
Good luck with this phase and I’d love to hear how it’s going!