If you’re a chronic worrier, you likely take your worries seriously. You likely believe them wholeheartedly. Maybe you think of them as flashing signs of imminent danger.
What if I lose my job turns into, Of course, I will lose my job. And, of course, I’m too old to get hired, which means I won’t be able to find work. What if my manager hates my marketing plan, becomes She’s going to not only hate it but she’ll regret hiring me in the first place. What if I freak out during my presentation, becomes I will screw up.
You might try to fight your worrisome thoughts or reason them away. You might try to quell your worries by disproving them — going to Google to find the answer, seeking reassurance from others, trying to reassure yourself.
But the more we try to get rid of these thoughts, the more they persist and the bigger they grow. Because who can be 100 percent positive that something won’t happen? Because we can’t, the worry thoughts simply multiply.
In his book The Worry Trick: How Your Brain Tricks You into Expecting the Worst and What You Can Do About It, clinical psychologist David A. Carbonell, Ph.D, suggests we take a very different approach. In fact, he suggests we do the opposite of what we’ve been doing. Because as he writes, “the repetitive ‘what if’ thoughts don’t really accurately predict illness, job loss, boiler failure, kids flunking out of school, and so on. What they do mean is ‘I’m nervous.’”
So when you’re trying to figure out how to deal with your persistent worries, the key is to respond to your nervousness, not to the supposedly impending disaster.
Carbonell makes a distinction between ordinary worry and chronic worry. Ordinary worry is a student sometimes worrying about a test. Ordinary worry activates us to plan and problem-solve. Once we’ve taken action, the worry dissipates.
However, according to Carbonell, chronic worry “involves a chaining of thoughts, the creation of an increasingly unlikely sequence of causes and effects which suggest that you will eventually suffer terrible catastrophes and lose your mind or your ability to function.”
For instance, he writes, if you answer “no” to these questions (or “yes” to the first and “no” to the second), then you’re dealing with chronic worry:
- Is there a problem that exists now in the external world around you?
- If there is, can you do something to change it now?
The Worry Trick is an easy-to-read, accessible and compassionate book filled with wise insights and practical tips. Here are two uncommon tips from Carbonell’s book for dealing with persistent worry.
Humor Your Worry
Carbonell likens chronic worry to a heckler in the audience. When you’re dealing with a heckler, it doesn’t help to stop your performance and get into a fistfight. It also doesn’t help to ignore the heckler or defend yourself against the heckler’s comments. What does help is to incorporate the heckler into your routine, so you don’t have to choose between continuing your show or listening to the complainer.
Carbonell suggests we humor our worry and use an exercise from improv called “Yes, and…” Instead of disagreeing, contradicting, or denying what another actor says, you accept it and then add to it. Again, the goal isn’t to get rid of your worry; it’s “to become more accepting of the worry so that it matters less to you.”
Here’s one example of humoring from the book:
What if I freak out on the airplane and they have to restrain me?
Yes, and when the plane lands they’ll probably parade me through town before taking me to the asylum, and I’ll be on the nightly news for everyone to see.
Repeat Your Worries
Our worry thoughts tend to lose their power with repetition. Carbonell suggests trying this experiment: Think of a typical worry. Write down the strongest version of this worry (using up to 25 words). Infuse it with all your fear and loathing. Start the sentence with “What if,” and add several “and then” phrases about the consequences.
Carbonell gives this example: “What if I go crazy, end up in an institution, and live a long, miserable pointless life — forgotten, toothless, with bad hair, abandoned, and alone?”
Next, write one to 25 on a piece of paper. Then sit or stand in front of a mirror. Say your sentence out loud. Say it slowly 25 times. After each time, cross off the number.
This is similar to exposing yourself to something you fear so it loses its grip on you. The more we do what we fear, the more we get used to it, and the less fear we have.
We can’t control the types of thoughts we have. We can have smart, dumb, angry and scary thoughts throughout the day. Which is OK. Fortunately, we can control how we respond to our thoughts, writes Carbonell. And “we can certainly pick what we do with our time on this planet. We don’t need to get our thoughts arranged the way we might like in order to do things we want to do.”
In other words, go about your business—chronic worry or not. Take a walk, anyway. Go to lunch with a loved one. Take your yoga class. Keep your museum date. Keep doing what’s important to you.
According to Carbonell, “Your involvement with your external world will tend to direct your energy and attention there—and leave less of it ‘in your head.’”
Man worrying photo available from Shutterstock