Worry (Part 3)
We left off the last post talking about identifying worries as current vs. potential problems and focusing only on the problems that are currently in our control. If you’ve been able to do that, that’s wonderful and I expect that you’ve probably found your worry has decreased a lot. However, as simple as the advice might sound, it’s actually really difficult to put it into practice and I would venture a guess that you haven’t always been successful just targeting your worry thoughts. Indeed, what happens to most of us is that worry behaviours start to get in the way.
Now, as I stated in the previous post, I consider worry itself to be a behavior, and we need to learn to limit the amount we engage in it. We’ll learn how to do this using mindfulness meditation techniques in a future post.
However, before we go there, I think it’s helpful to target some of the worry behaviours that are more outwardly noticeable (because other people in your life can actually help you work on these).
So, if you remember from where we left off, our worry tree has grown large and we find ourselves trying to problem-solve every worry we think of. How do we go about trying to do this? Well, ultimately what we’re most scared about in the worry scenarios is probably not the actual event happening, but the uncertainty about whether it will happen. Indeed, people who tend to worry a lot also tend to be very uncomfortable with uncertainty in general. If I don’t like uncertainty, and it causes me anxiety, I will try to get rid of it by reducing uncertainty, right?
So I might start double-checking things to make sure that I’ve done them correctly, and maybe as I do that, I’ll start questioning whether I’ve really checked accurately, so I recheck…and recheck…and maybe people start getting frustrated with me because I’m taking a lot of time to leave my house (“Did I lock that door?” “Did I turn off the stove?”), or I’m asking them the same questions of them over and over (“You’re going to pick up the kids from school, right?” “You won’t forget?”).
Along those lines, maybe I start asking for reassurance wherever I can get it. So if I’m waiting for test results from my doctor, maybe I’m asking my family members over and over whether or not they think things will be okay, or what it means that the doctor has/has not called. And while they’re telling me everything is okay, maybe I’m spending all my time preparing for the worst by googling (one of the worst things anyone can do if they’re feeling anxious, by the way), because it’s not enough to hear from one, two, or a hundred people. I need to keep seeking the reassurance.
Speaking of preparing (and overpreparing), maybe I’m planning a dinner party and want things to go perfectly, so I try to plan things down to the minute and I create contingency plans for every possible emergency that could arise. Maybe things do go well, but I might not enjoy it the way I’d like because a) I’m already exhausted, and b) I have to be on edge in case something goes wrong at any second.
Already you can see that things get tough when there’s uncertainty, so maybe I don’t just engage in behaviours that reduce uncertainty when it’s here, but maybe I actually preemptively start to avoid situations that could cause uncertainty in the first place. So that means avoiding traveling, because there’s so much to plan. Avoiding applying for a new job, even if I’m not so happy in my present one because “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Maybe I don’t even bother to get involved in romantic relationships because what if it doesn’t turn out in the end?
Along these lines, people who worry also tend to procrastinate a lot. This might seem counterintuitive, given they also tend to overprepare and overcheck things, but it’s actually completely in line with these: “I just don’t have the hours (or the energy) it’s going to take to get this project completed, so I’ll wait to start it.” Of course, the longer one waits to start, the more pressure is on the task, the more worry and uncertainty, and the more one wants to put it off.
Do any of these sound familiar to you? The first thing I’d like you to notice about them is that they make sense, if one’s effort is to reduce uncertainty/anxiety and feel slightly better. Each time a person checks their front door and sees that it’s locked, s/he feels a rush of relief. When s/he gets reassurance from others s/he feels better. When s/he avoids a challenging or uncertain situation, s/he sighs a breath of relief. So the behaviours work in the short term, and that’s part of the reason we keep doing them.
However, we also keep doing them because the behaviours actually sustain themselves. Every time a person overchecks or overprepares, they actually reduce their confidence in themselves and their ability to handle uncertainty. Every time they check that front door again to make sure it’s locked, they are telling themselves that they can’t be trusted to take care of that task. Whenever they overprepare and things go well, they say to themselves it was only because they did so much preparing in the first place and they reduce their belief that they would have been able to pull it off even if they winged some of it. Every time they seek reassurance from someone else, they are doubting their own instincts. All of this leads to a belief that they couldn’t handle something that came out of left field (which would be something uncertain), and they are more and more driven to try to control things to avoid catastrophe, and more and more likely to envision worst-case scenarios in advance so that they can prepare for them (i.e., worry).
See where I’m going with this? The worry leads to behaviours that try to reduce uncertainty and deal with the worry, but they just lead to lower confidence in your own instincts and abilities and more tendency to worry as a result. Not a great cycle.
So how do we break this? Well, as difficult as it can be, we need to stop the worry behaviours. They might seem like they’re helping in the moment, and granted, they will likely give momentary relief, but in the end, they will only perpetuate the problem.
What would this look like? Well, the first step is to notice and write down your worry behaviours. I would recommend taking a week and just paying attention to the things you do when you’re worrying. You don’t have to change them at this point. When you’ve got a good sense of them though, experiment a little with not engaging in them and see what happens. Likely you will experience more anxiety at first, as you’re not doing the thing that you believe will reduce the anxiety and, therefore, not only are you possibly fearing that the something terrible that you’ve been envisioning is now more likely to happen, but you also may be just scared of the feeling of anxiety and feel like it will never go away unless you act on it. Truly, in my opinion, most of our psychological distress comes from this: a desire and effort to not experience negative feelings. And this is where mindfulness techniques are extremely helpful. Through them, we can learn to be more tolerant of our negative feelings and not fight so hard to get rid of them. Somewhat ironically, the less we fight our feelings, the less we tend to have them. But that is for a future post…
For now, have a look at what you’re doing, and if/when you can try to stop yourself from doing it and see what happens. If you prepare a little less for the meeting at work, and things still go fine, what will that do to your confidence in yourself and your ability to attend a meeting successfully? Would you be as likely to overprepare for the next meeting? If you don’t engage in worry behaviours and you have a little more anxiety for an hour, but then it goes down on its own, what will that start to say about your feelings and how much they need to be controlled?
Give it a shot and let me know how you’re getting on!
(By the way, I was just about to read through this post again to check for typos, spelling mistakes, etc., but then I thought, maybe this is a good opportunity to just assume it’s probably good enough and leave it as it is. It’s uncertain, but I’m pretty sure it will work out in the long run).