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.
In the book, LeJeune writes that worry thoughts typically follow patterns such as “what if” thoughts (e.g., “What if I’m terminally sick?” “What if I faint?”) and ruminations. When people ruminate, they typically think and worry about the past, sometimes strongly wishing that they could go back in time and make a different decision. People also can ruminate around the word “Why.” For instance, you might ask yourself “Why is that today there’s a torrent of traffic?” or “Why does this have to happen to me of all people?”
Labeling your worry thoughts lets you know when to apply the model, and helps you start separating yourself from these thoughts.
2. Let go of control.
This step encourages worriers to slow down the fight-or-flight response and relax the body by using “traditional stress management” techniques, LeJeune says. Examples include breathing deeply and relaxing your hands and all your muscles.
But this isn’t to gain control over your anxiety. Trying to overpower worry only ignites anxiety and worry thoughts. When you “have a thought you don’t like, your body responds by struggling physically to control it and escape from it. And that intensifies the thought,” LeJeune says.
So your goal is actually the opposite — to interrupt the urge to stronghold your anxiety. It’s to allow acceptance and mindfulness to enter, LeJeune writes in The Worry Trap. As he says, some people will try to use relaxation techniques as weapons in their anti-anxiety arsenal. They’ll try “to furiously breathe away their anxiety,” or get stressed out because yoga isn’t eliminating their angst. They might walk away from a massage feeling fantastic, but they let the inevitable sprinklings of stress undo that relaxation.
It’s unrealistic to think that we can sail through life without any stressors, he says. This perspective also sets people up for more anxiety, he adds, and puts a lot of pressure on yourself.
3. Accept and observe thoughts and feelings.
The goal is to look at your worry thought instead of “looking through it,” LeJeune says. That is, you begin viewing these thoughts as “separate from yourself,” he says. You remind yourself that your thoughts are not reality. They’re not actual events. Separating thoughts from reality is called “cognitive defusion” in ACT.
There are various defusion exercises that can help. For instance, let’s say that you have a fear of earthquakes, and you’re in California for the first time. Not surprisingly, you’re on edge, and every time you hear a loud noise, you think it’s an earthquake. One way to accept and observe this worry thought is by imagining an earthquake gnome, LeJeune says. Imagine the earthquake gnome saying the worry thoughts in a squeaky voice. You might say, “He’s not very smart. I’m not going to listen to him.”
You aren’t trying to rid yourself of these thoughts but you’re trying to distance yourself from them.
4. Be mindful of the present moment.
Mindfulness means “getting out of your head” and “being aware of your immediate surroundings,” using all your senses. You do this in a nonjudgmental and compassionate away, according to LeJeune. He gives the example of an exercise: “picking a color, like red, and for the next two minutes, [you] notice everything that’s the color red.”
The importance of being mindful, LeJeune writes, isn’t to distract yourself. It’s to support observing your thoughts and accepting them.
5. Proceed in the right direction.
Worry “takes us out of the moment and away from connecting with the way we want to move forward,” LeJeune says. We become “focused on what could happen.” Oftentimes, we find ourselves placating our anxiety. Our anxiety might drive many of our choices. In fact, our anxiety might drive our lives.
Instead, the key is to make conscious choices based on your values. Values propel people forward, and give us a rationale or purpose for proceeding, even while anxiety is present. LeJeune likens this to sailing a boat. Consider that “The journey in the boat is your life,” and you’ve got two instruments: a compass and a barometer. When you focus on anxiety, it’s like you’re steering the boat with a barometer, which provides you with the weather, not the direction. Using a barometer means you avoid any potential bad weather and you sail where the waters are calm. But using it to steer the ship also gives you no sense of direction. The compass, however, represents your values. When you use the compass, you know where you’re going, “even if the water is rough or the weather is dicey” (or you’re experiencing anxiety or difficult emotions).
“The more clarity you have [about your values and direction], the more willing you are to do the work.” When thinking about your values, avoid focusing on society’s standards. As LeJeune emphasizes, values are very individual. Consider what “make[s] your life worth living,” he says.
Your attitude about coping with worry and anxiety is also important. LeJeune says that, understandably, many people with acute anxiety are serious and upset and think they have to get a handle on their anxiety immediately. He suggests using a “playful and lighter manner,” which is how he approaches working with his clients.