Everyone worries from time to time. But for some people, “worry is a way of life,” writes clinical psychologist Chad LeJeune, Ph.D, in his book, The Worry Trap: How to Free Yourself from Worry & Anxiety Using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. Too much worry can produce anxiety, paralyze productivity and problem solving and cause problems in relationships.
But you’re not powerless over your worry and anxiety. You can move forward. In his book, LeJeune offers a 5-step model to help you cope, whether you’re an occasional worrier or a full-time worrywart.
LeJeune’s model is based on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). As he writes in The Worry Trap, LLAMP (his acronym for the approach) focuses on “letting go of the struggle to control unwanted thoughts and feelings, being mindfully aware of the present moment, and committing to a course of action that is consistent with what you value most in life.”
Worry & Its Evolution
Before delving into the model, LeJeune says that it’s important to learn how worry works. Imagine you’re hiking along a cliff, he says. Your brain tells you “I might fall,” and you picture yourself falling. This thought helps you realize that you need to be extra careful about where you’re walking. This is “a helpful thought to have,” he says.
However, “when your anxiety is high, you’ll experience that image not as ‘I might fall,’ [but as] ‘I will fall.’” With heightened anxiety, “we’re less able to discriminate [between] the thought that might happen” and the reality. This is called “cognitive fusion,” when “a thought becomes fused with what it refers to.” We experience a thought “as a reality, an almost inevitability.”
Evolutionarily speaking, cognitive fusion is adaptive, LeJeune says. Consider this scenario: A person is sitting in a forest and hears something rustling through the bushes. “It could be something dangerous, like a tiger, or something benign, like a small animal,” LeJeune says. “The brain starts to generate hypotheses about what it could be.” The person who didn’t pay much attention to the thought “It might be a tiger” “got eaten first.” But the other person, whose anxiety shot up, responded by running away. He didn’t wait around to see who the noise belonged to. He assumed the situation was dangerous and got out of there. So “it’s more adaptive in a dangerous situation to experience your thoughts as real.” But this can backfire when the situation isn’t risky, fueling anxiety and worry.
The 5-Step Model
1. Label worry thoughts.
According to LeJeune, this step is about identifying “when the phenomenon of worry is happening.” Most worriers have worries around several similar themes, such as health, their job, relationships and finances. Because people see their worries as facts, it can be hard to distinguish a normal thought from a worry thought.