Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Are You a Worrywart?



            Are you a worrywart?     The Stress Monster loves worrywarts!


Stress, worries, anxiety, all are related.  These are mind-body states which all perform a useful function at times but too often become excessive and inappropriate causing distress and even illness.  I'll explain.


Let's start with the stress response.  In an emergency situation your body needs a generalized mobilization response to cope with danger immediately. If an out-of-control truck is careening toward you, the stress response is your best friend. Heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate increase to transport energy, nutrients and oxygen as rapidly as possible to the critical muscles enabling you to run from the truck. At the same time, non-emergency body processes such as digestion, energy storage and immunity are inhibited.  Safely out of the way of the truck, the stress response should shut off immediately. Stress hormones mobilized for the emergency should quiet, secreted only in small amounts. Constantly mobilized stress responses will cause fatigue, tension, nervous agitation and physical maladies if periods of calm do not predominate between emergency responses.  An interesting book (Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, Third Edition, Holt, 2004) explains the problem of the stress response created by worry in modern-day living.  Zebras don't worry about income taxes, car repairs, relationships, etc.., and so they are able to switch off their stress responses efficiently and go back to enjoying their lives between emergencies. We have the great gift of thought and conceptualization which zebras don't have. If zebras did worry, they might get ulcers worrying about the effects of climate change on their food supply, whether the elephants were going to charge their territory, whether they would make it to the waterhole tonight, and so forth.


Worry is one kind of anxiety. Psychologists will tell you that a little "anticipatory anxiety" can be functional in helping you cope with challenges. Thinking ahead, planning to avert probable disasters, all can be quite useful. Again, the trick is to keep this skill in balance and use it only when necessary.  Some people think that constant worry is useful in that it will make your life more predictable so you will be safer from disaster. But always focusing on worst-case scenarios will not keep you safe or keep feared events from occurring. It just will keep you from enjoying the good things in your life. Worry can become chronic and even addictive. One day you are a planner and the next you are a "worrywart" or a doctor diagnoses you with "generalized anxiety."  You worry excessively and needlessly and cannot turn it off, interrupting sleep, pleasure, even digestion and immunity. When you began worrying about worrying, you are really trapped. You are actually activating your stress response constantly and chronically.


There are many techniques to help the worrywart. But let me caution you about a common misconception. Your friends may tell you just to stop worrying or you may have come up with this brilliant thought yourself only to be surprised when you find out that it doesn't work. When you think about not worrying, you are actually thinking about worrying. Your brain cannot process negatives in this way and so is constantly primed to think about worrying. To make my point, try to spend the next five minutes not thinking about white bears. Guess what keeps coming to your mind? White bears. Clearly this technique does not work.  But you can designate "worry periods" to set a time and place for worrying, postpone your worries until that time, then make notes and plans during your worry period. If you have worry thoughts at other times, you can jot down a note and postpone  until your worry period. Your worry time should be early enough so that you will not be anxious right before bedtime.  Other techniques include improving problem-solving to deal with issues without worry and learning to challenge worries head on.  It's important to realize that we must accept uncertainty. Worrywarts usually cannot stand doubt or unpredictability. Learning to tolerate uncertainty will lessen worrying. Assessing the probability of a negative event will help you learn to tolerate the unpredictability of flow probable events. Relaxation techniques help reduce the mental and physical tension of excessive worry. Living in the present tense is an effective antidote to worry. After all, worry is thinking about past problems and/or projecting future problems. Worry will bring past or possible future problems to life in your mind without those issues actually occurring in the present. You can deal with current problems without worry.  Eckhart Tolle has provided a useful explanation of this approach in "The Power of Now" which is available as a book (New World, 2004) or I recommend his CD (Unabridged Audi book, New World, 2010.) I even have a new program for my computer with a traveling banner across the desktop with my intention to be "joyful, peaceful and calm." These words are helpful signal to body and mind to remain in this positive state of being.


So now you can begin your transition from a worrywart to a calm and peaceful new life. There are many techniques which can be utilized to help decrease excessive anxiety; a good therapist or life coach can help Individualize a plan for you. So Happy Spring!