Most people have experienced a time in their life when they worry about a looming problem or a momentous decision. Having just completed what Time magazine called “a decade from Hell”, for much of humanity, that time is now. Others worry through every stage of life, even when things are going well. Worry can make most people feel incompetent and alone, and in need of escape. But worry can have some productive functions, too. Worry can move a person who is in the midst of a particularly challenging time to accept the reality of their situation, generate solutions, and move toward implementing those solutions. Worry can help people to identify their priorities better, and to know who their most supportive friends and family members are. But if worry is allowed to get beyond the worrier’s control, it can become debilitating and can leave the worrier feeling helpless and isolated. Dealing with worry as soon as it becomes an issue is the most effective way to actually use worry as a tool for growth and empowerment. Here are some steps towards managing worry and using it to live more effectively.
The first step is to identify the problem or problems that are the focus of worry. It can be really confusing when a number of troublesome problems and scenarios occupy one’s thoughts. Simply writing down a bullet-point list of all of your worries can help to clarify your thinking. Containing the list of worries on one sheet of paper can start to reduce their power a little bit. Share your worries with someone you trust, who will accepts you and without judgments or admonishments about right and wrong decisions. This could be a close friend, spiritual mentor, or close family member. Married people should most often share their worries with their spouse, with a few exceptions, such as the protection of confidential professional information, or families in military service, due to the protection of positive morale. Confidential support groups are very helpful here. People who are spiritually active should share their worries, fears and concerns with God. Knowing that you are not battling your worries alone reduces their power a little further.
The next step may sound obvious --- take creative steps toward solving the most worrisome problems. Some people find that writing down the steps they have already taken towards solving the problem, and then continuing the list to include future steps, helps to clarify their thoughts and make them feel more empowered. The underlying assumption is that most problems can be solved, or at least managed, in a way that restores one’s sense that things are going to be Okay. Another assumption here is that people do not deserve to live the rest of their lives under the weight of today’s problems. People deserve hope, and have the “power to” overcome their own problems. “Power to” is an expression I use often with my clients, and is loosely defined as empowerment and fruitfulness that do not rely on “power over” people or circumstances, but is a product of a life lived in a network of support and encouragement. When people take steps to solve their problems, they develop “power to”, and this positive internal change energizes people towards solving future problems and dilemmas, reducing future anxiety.
Finishing the first two steps in a thought-out way can speak to a lot of issues. At this point in the process, a problem may seem less threatening and more manageable than it seemed originally; the danger may be past, or the right decision is clear. Other problems show themselves to require more support and time to resolve. People who are still worried to the point that they don’t function well in their occupation, or can’t sleep, or develop other physical symptoms, begin to worry that the problem will never go away, or that they will have to live with worry for the rest of their lives. Sometimes there is a vague fear that “something bad” will happen a few months from now. If the worry is still there, it is time to implement the third step, which is to slow down one’s thoughts before they have the chance to drift into hopelessness or various doomsday scenarios, and interrupt the worry with a positive and true thought. As soon as you notice that you are worrying, stop for a minute to identify the problem and remember the steps you are taking to resolve it. Remind yourself that on the remote possibility that the worst does happen, you have what it takes, with the help of your support network, to face challenges and emerge from them stronger. Many worriers report that simply interrupting anxious thoughts by reading or reciting a favorite poem, or a comforting Scripture passage, is helpful. Others can interrupt their worrisome thoughts by looking at family photographs, or asking for a hug from a loved one. Reaching out to help someone else with their problems can be a great worry-interrupter. Clients often report that when they put themselves into a helping situation that interests them, such as volunteering at a food pantry, for example, they enjoy a break from their usual worries and cares.
The fourth step, if the worry is still there, is to reduce one’s lifestyle by one degree. Many clients find that it hurts their pride to have to admit that they can’t “do it all”, and a lot of super-responsible people don’t want to let anyone down by not fulfilling promises they have made regarding particular responsibilities. But it is actually a breath of fresh air in today’s over-busy, “workaholic” culture when someone shows the consideration and independence of thought to re-negotiate responsibilities in light of his or her human limitations. Is there one responsibility that can be eliminated, at least for three to six months? This helps to slow down the pace of one’s life in general, which helps in the process of slowing down one’s thinking, and also allows for the brain and emotions to rest, and for the individual to “just be”. It is not necessary or helpful to stop everything. But especially for people who have experienced panic episodes, just slowing down by that one degree can improve one’s whole outlook. Everyone needs at least a few minutes each day to “just be” and not “do”, so that they can feel refreshed and ready for their next challenge. A lot of worriers enjoy a comforting ritual as part of their “just being” time, such as walking the dog, drinking herb tea, or getting a monthly massage or acupuncture treatment.
The fifth step, processing the past, is actually woven throughout the process of healing for anxiety. Present stressors can trigger the return of anxious feelings from past events, going back as far as early childhood. Through psychotherapy, clients experience healing of stressful or traumatic memories. The past can be a great source of encouragement and comfort as well. Recalling favorite childhood memories that create feelings of safety and security is also a component of effective psychotherapy. Bringing favorite childhood activities, such as camping, baking cookies, playing board games, or participating in religious activities, into one’s adult life, can be soothing, and make the world seem a little less chaotic.
Finally, develop the habit of asking for what you want and need in your significant relationships, even when you are anxious or “stressed out”. It would be inaccurate and simplistic to assume that one’s relationships continue on, unchanged, during a period of great anxiety. Anxiety and worry can take its toll on relationships. It can falsely feel like the worrier is all alone, and that no one wants to help. This makes it doubly beneficial for someone who worries to remember to connect well with the people who are the most important in one’s life, and to develop the habit of saying, “This is what I want and need”. Asking for what you want and need demonstrates how much you value that person, and helps people to know each other more intimately and trust each other more. This makes people more effective in their efforts to resolve problems and overcome fears. Finally, resist the urge to control people and situations. To the worrier, it may feel safer to control people’s actions, and the outcomes of situations. It seems to make sense to skip over the process of asking for what you want and need, and just simply demand it; or try to manipulate people; or to try to meet one’s wants and needs independently; or to live without one’s wants and needs being met. But these secondary strategies can lead to resentments, and they take valuable energy away from problem-solving and teamwork.
The goal is to emerge from worry as a stronger, more peaceful person with strong relationships and greater “power to”. -- not to change into someone you are not. Some people are more prone to worry than others, and the world needs worry-warts as much as it needs relaxed types. Worriers tend to be responsible, thorough, and sensitive to the needs and feelings of others. I personally hope there are worriers working at NASA and in hospital intensive care units. If you are a worrier, don’t let anyone tell you that you are weak, or imagining things, or that this is “all in your head”. Use worry creatively to move forward personally, and in relationships.