How, you ask, can worry be beneficial? Filling our heads with “would could have been, what ifs, and what should be – how can these thoughts be helpful when they zap our energy, fill us with stress-inducing emotions, limit our capacity to positively connect with the world around us, resulting in lack of joy, purpose or direction? Continuous worry creates a pit of worst-case scenarios that grab hold and paralyze, inhibiting our capacity to realistically assess and take action. It also plants the seeds of self-doubt while feeling as if we’ve dug a hole from which we cannot get out. Engaging in avoidance, procrastination and sabotage become the norm. In doing so, we reinforce the very “worry” which we try so desperately to escape from.
There are benefits of worrying that many are not aware of, but holding onto worry because of our inability or unwillingness (a plausible option?) to cast it aside for new, more adaptive thoughts and behaviors, we cling to our worry with the awareness that this is all we know and things will never be different. This is the cycle of despair and hopelessness upon which worry feeds. And… in a most ironic way, we may come to believe our worry serves us, keeps us safe, sheltered from the cruel world outside. But, of course, how else to explain our relationship with worry when that’s all we know.
Some of us hold on to our worry as if it’s a badge of honor or courage. After all, are we not survivors? The very fact that we have managed to negotiate the onslaught brought on by worry, in and of itself, makes us special, unique individuals. It sets us apart from the rest of the population who don’t get to experience worry the way we do. So, yes, we are special and unique. And… in feeling so, we cling to our survivor status.
Here’s the thing… worry can be quite beneficial if it moves us from merely “surviving” to “thriving.” If properly harnessed, it can move us out of a relentless daily grind of avoidance, stagnation and emotional / psychological numbing, to a life of joy, purpose, and direction. This is not an easy journey for many, if not most, anxiety sufferers to take. Some of you may have attempted to embark on this journey of change at one time or another, only to feel defeated after attempts either failed or were met with minimal success. And… despite valiant efforts, the constant reminder of having felt defeated might make you hesitant or fearful of engaging in any future attempts to combat worry.
How do I respond to your fears? By letting you know that I understand what you’re feeling, because I used to feel the same way. Like many of you, I was caught up in the vicious cycle of “worry,” which made me feel powerless to do anything about it. And…like many or you, I experienced unsuccessful attempts at gaining mastery over my worry – that’s until I found the courage to seek professional help, which led me to reframe the way I looked at worry and begin the process of making powerful changes in my life.
Worry is a chronic habit that can be broken
You can break this habit by adopting a more realistic perspective
Ask yourself, “is this problem that I’m worrying about solvable?” Your response may be, “I don’t know, or I don’t think so.” A good place to begin the process of answering this question is by reading and reflecting upon the Serenity Prayer. Even if you’re not particularly religious, you may find guidance in these words: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Go ahead, print it up, and reflect on its significance to worry. Much of our worry is rooted in unrealistic expectations and feeling that we need to be in “control at all times.” The Serenity Prayer instructs us to focus on that which we can change, while turning over to our higher power that which we cannot. There is wisdom in these words which, paradoxically, remind us that the more we try to control things the less control we actually have. This very act of focusing on changing what we can and, conversely, letting go of things which we cannot change induces in us a sense of serenity (which is the very antithesis to worry).
Simply put, the very act of giving up control (at least in its absolute form) induces serenity which, in turn, reduces worry. It’s hard for one to feel serene and worry at the same time. And… having given up control over problems which are beyond our control (or for which we have no immediate solution), this newfound serenity allows us to focus on problems which we are currently capable of working through. You may call upon a friend or family members to process what is solvable and what is not, or you may require the guidance of a professional to help you work things through. You may want to list all your perceived problems on a sheet of paper, then place them in order of importance. Doing so will help you gain perspective on what needs to be done, what you can work on later, and what you need to discard.
Dispute negative thoughts: One way of doing so is by picturing yourself as a member of a jury, where you are being asked to examine the information presented and decipher truth from fiction. In this same vein, write down your negative thoughts, rate its truthfulness on a scale from 1-10, present written arguments support the negative thought, then counter with written arguments to dispute your negative thought – much the same prosecutor and defense attorney would look at the same so-called “facts” through their respective lens. Practicing this exercise may teach you that most of your negative thoughts don’t carry 100% weight, aren’t 100% true all of the time, as there are exceptions which present opportunities for “reframing your argument” (your negative thought) into a more positive light (“more realistic thought.) This is the opposite of engaging in “all-or-nothing thinking,” which will be explored in the following section.
- All-or-nothing thinking – Viewing yourself, your problems, other people and the world around you in black and white terms. There is no room for middle-ground or shades of gray. This type of distorted thinking leaves no room for trial and error, or failure. Often coexisting with a need to be perfect, failure is not an option. In fact, rather than seeking to learn from unsuccessful attempts, you erode your self-confidence by taking your lack of mastery as a sign of personal weakness. Associated with this feeling of failure are the imposition of shoulds (“I should be in control…I should not fail…I should not make mistakes…I should not let others know what I really feel.), and what ifs (What if s/he doesn’t like me or agree with me… What if people notice my mistakes… What if I’m not able to do the job and get fired”). If you want to reduce worry, try seeing yourself and people around you as less than perfect. Come to recognize that the imposition of shoulds and what ifs only reinforce worry, rather than help you solve any problems or challenges that come your way. In fact, they only immobilize you.
- Overgeneralization – This refers to taking a single negative experience and expecting it to hold true forever. For example, “I didn’t get the job. Therefore, I will never get any job.” If you subscribe to this type of thinking, I encourage you to consider that one event is just that. Nothing more, nothing less. Things change, conditions change over time, and what happens at one point in time does not relegate you to the same negative outcome, unless you adopt a negative attitude that fosters behaviors that reinforce the same result. Overgeneralization will keep you stuck in a rut, and may even serve as a defense mechanism against change.
- Negating (or minimizing) the positives – Practically all of my clients have engaged in this type of negative thinking at one time or another. It involves focusing on the negatives (distressing events) without recognizing anything good or positive that came your way. And so… even if good things present themselves, you dismiss them and focus instead on all that went wrong during the day. There may have been 5 good things that happened to you, or 5 good things that resulted from being proactive, but all is discounted, minimized, devalued or wiped clean in favor of some bad things that happened to you. Utilizing a type of negative mental filter or selective memory makes is difficult for you to take stock of your accomplishments. To those of you engaged in this sort of practice, I encourage you to open your eyes, widen your lens, and make room for even the smallest of accomplishments. Rather than having to think big, remember that it is often the smallest of steps (“baby steps”) which lead to the greatest strides. Writing your accomplishments down on a daily basis will make you more aware and appreciative of what you have, and can have with a little perseverance.
These are but a few of the cognitive distortions that many, if not most, of you engage in.I ask you to consider that you inability or unwillingness to accept uncertainty plays a significant role in your anxiety and worry.Worriers demand certainty, maintain unrealistic expectations of self and others, and demand that the world operate according to their beliefs.They tend to engage in knee-jerk responses to life’s challenges instead of taking the time to think things through without prejudice or judgment.Their belief that bad things can be averted through worry actually reinforces the very worry that they seemingly want to avoid.
In conclusion, worry that spurs us on towards problem-solving is constructive.On the other hand, worry that preoccupies, erodes confidence and self-mastery, and prevents us from living with joy and purpose, is unhealthy and even dangerous to your physical and mental well-being. These benefits of worrying should provide direction on what you should do when you feel worry, stress, or anxiety.
There’s No Need To Suffer…
Anxiety disorders, stress, and worry can make it difficult to find joy, meaning, and purpose in your life. We all need support at different times in our lives. Most of my clients seek help when their current way of dealing with life’s challenges no longer works for them. With a caring, non-judgmental and solution-focused approach, we will explore your issues and challenges in a safe therapeutic environment at my private practice in Delray Beach, Florida, or through remote online therapy from the comfort of your own home that will allow you to learn more effective ways of managing your anxiety and stress. Let’s walk the path to freedom from anxiety together.
If you’re ready to let go of the fears, worries, and anxieties that are making life difficult, you should sign up today for my weekly newsletter series “Freedom from Anxiety and Depression” for regular anxiety busting tips.