What do you worry about? Is it your family? Finances? Relationships? We all have things that we worry about at times but the good news is that we can train our brains to overcome our tendency to worry.
In The Worry-Free Mind, Carol Kershaw and Bill Wade share practical tips for getting out of that worrying mindset by teaching us how we can change our brains.
In part one, Kershaw and Wade acknowledge that the demands of our modern day life are not going to go away. But we can change our response to those demands as well as where we focus our attention.
“If your mind focuses on the negative, your reality will look pretty negative, too, which can cause you to live in a constant state of worry,” write Kershaw and Wade.
They also point out that learning to change our response to events is about more than just our mental health. A stress response from worrying can contribute to heart attacks and even lower our immune systems. And when we move from worry to rumination, we invite headaches, insomnia, and general pain.
One of the biggest takeaways from the book is that since our attention has a significant impact on how we feel, where we focus it matters. Focusing on something calming rather than getting caught up in our negative minds keeps us from worrying, since we cannot do both at once.
Every time we make a choice about which direction we take our minds, we strengthen those particular neural pathways in our brains. If our norm is to worry and ruminate, we’re strengthening those pathways.
“If you can control your attention, you can control your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, which means you also have the ability to increase your own motivation, persistence, courage, curiosity, and even willpower,” write Kershaw and Wade.
In part two, the authors point out that worrying less is not about denying stress, but rather it is our mindset that has the superpower to change. If our view is that stress is something that exhausts us, then it’s going to be something that we’re going to avoid. If we develop a mindset of positivity, when stress comes it can actually help our performance rather than impacting us negatively.
Kershaw and Wade also make an interesting point about psychiatric medications through the example of a client who was told that she had an anxiety disorder and needed medication to deal with it. This is not uncommon among those who seek psychiatric help for anxiety, but the implication was that the client had no control and that medication was the only thing that would help.
Without discounting the place of medication in treatment, the authors also see value in practices and intentions that emphasize what the client can control, as opposed to what she cannot.
In part three, readers are encouraged to plan ahead for handling thoughts or events that trigger worry so that they can prepare to react less strongly to these negative things.
“When you think about a past event that still carries an emotional charge, your brain recreates the same pattern as when the event occurred, reinforcing the exact pattern of neuronal firing and wiring,” they write.
This rumination keeps us from having new and positive experiences because we are training our brain to stay focused on negative things in the past, or future events we cannot predict. In other words, neuroplasticity — the power to change our brains — can be used for good or evil, and the choice is entirely up to us.
Training our brains occurs through practices such as meditation where we become more aware of the present moment. Rather than denying our worries, meditation helps us learn to face them head-on with intentionality so that we can move into the future that we want to live.
In the final section, Kershaw and Wade circle back to the importance of attention and how it can keep us from getting stuck. We can learn to accept circumstances that we are unable to change, and we can also learn to control how we respond to them.
“Because you take your mind with you no matter where you are, changing your outer circumstances rarely changes your state of mind,” write Kershaw and Wade.
That’s a powerful statement for those of us who look to feel “better” by escaping or changing circumstances. It implies that our efforts to change the circumstances are really only bandaids; at some point we are going to come across other unpleasant circumstances again, and we can’t change everything. If we focus more on our ability to stay calm and reduce worry, we can take that calm with us no matter the circumstance we find ourselves in.
Kershaw and Wade make a strong argument for the benefits of mastering our worry. They cite case study examples and offer practical exercises for putting their ideas into practice. I appreciate their exploration of routes to healing that do not require medication, and their approach is doable for those who want to implement these practices. Their techniques and experience set them apart from the typical self-help market or an easy “be positive” type of solution. And readers without a scientific background will understand the research behind it and recognize that a worry-free mind is possible.
The Worry-Free Mind: Train your brain, calm the stress spin cycle, and discover a happier, more productive you
Carol Kershaw and Bill Wade
The Career Press, 2017
Paperback, 208 pages