Breaking the Cycle of Anxiety (Part 3)
Worry is a prevalent habit, and since it is annoying rather than disabling, many worrywarts don’t recognize themselves as anxious. In fact, worriers often feel justified. Why not turn the car around to double check that you locked the door? Why not worry about global warming, terrorism, and all the other aspects of an unsafe world? Worry is anxiety backed up by excuses invented by the mind. Therefore, this is one aspect of anxiety where the mind must be taught to think in a different way. Convinced by its own beliefs, a worried mind will never abandon its habit.
The first of these beliefs is rather surprising: Worriers believe they are doing good. They feel that they are protecting themselves and others from danger. Since their minds are filled with every conceivable risk, worriers wind up being right some of the time. They are like hoarders who never throw anything out. If one hoarded item proves useful, it justifies keeping a hundred that aren’t. The worrier uses the same logic. They don’t see the obvious: worrying about ninety-nine useless things out of a hundred is a waste of time and emotion. Until they accept this fact, worriers will feel justified. Everyone but them knows that worry is far more harmful than helpful. It’s excessive. It annoys other people and makes them exhausted and impatient. Far from making a positive contribution, worriers slow things down, throw up needless obstacles, and increase anxiety in others. In the end, they usually wind up being shut out and ignored. In response to being ignored, they worry even more.
Just as defeatism is a second belief: worriers feel that they need to worry. If this need isn’t fulfilled, they fear calamity. Who will keep things in one piece if they aren’t doing the worrying that is so desperately needed? This need is related to other kinds of obsessive behavior. It blocks deep insecurity by giving the mind a “solution” that feels convincing even though it is utterly false: the more I worry, the safer I will be. Clearly a worried mind must get out of its obsessive groove. To turn the mind around, it must be given better reasons to not worry than to worry. Here are some examples of what I mean.
Worried belief: The world is unsafe. It’s only natural to worry.
Better belief: You can still be safe in an unsafe world. By making your personal situation safe, you add to the world’s overall security.
Worried belief: Life is full of accidents and random bad things. I have to be on the lookout for them.
Better belief: Accidents can be prevented with useful measures like wearing a seat belt and not living in a flood zone. Once they are in place, there’s nothing more to do. By definition, unpredictable things cannot be foreseen.
Worried belief: I inherited the worry gene. I can’t help it.
Better belief: I learned how to worry, so I can unlearn how to worry. It’s a habit rooted in my sense of insecurity. By becoming more secure in myself, I can gain control over my fears.
In addition, a recovering worrier should write down certain basic facts and consult the list regularly to see if their belief system is starting to match reality.
- You aren’t helping the situation by worrying. You will be of greater help by pitching in on a practical basis.
- You aren’t improving anyone else’s life by worrying about them. To improve their lives, be supportive and appreciative.
- Not to worry is psychologically healthy. Non-worriers aren’t being careless or negligent.
- Worry is a sign of deeper anxiety. It is healed by addressing that deeper level.
- Worry is making you unhappy. This is reason enough to give it up.
- Worry leads to bad decisions because they are colored by needless, unrealistic fears. If you want a better life, you need good decisions.
- Worry shuts out others who want to be close to you. The more you worry, the farther away they will go.
Worriers, like other anxious people, don’t understand why their fears seemingly come out of the blue. “I wasn’t doing anything. I was having a normal day, when suddenly I was hit by this certainty that something bad was going to happen.” The hidden element is that anxious people need to be vigilant all the time. So when things settle down, it’s only a matter of time before they notice that they are not being vigilant. Anxiety jumps to the “rescue,” putting them back into their familiar groove.
Often there is a family history of tension, stress, or abuse. Perhaps one parent is an alcoholic or has a bad temper; there might be constant fighting and arguing in the house. Under those circumstances, a child learns that there is always a storm to follow the calm. This lesson becomes imprinted as a fearful expectation. “Mommy and daddy aren’t yelling at each other, so I need to be very, very still and make them not start again.” This childlike reasoning doesn’t work, of course. The parents won’t stop fighting, the father won’t stop drinking, and the mother won’t stop having angry outbursts. So the only form of control the child has in order to live with its fears is to constantly wait for the other shoe to drop. The habit born in childhood of being on the lookout for new troubles is at the root of much adult anxiety.
We can simplify this by saying that for an anxious person, the mind is no friend. It is necessary, then, to turn your back on fearful thinking and stop trusting it. Learn to confront the onset of worry with the following statements to yourself:
Fear feels convincing, but it’s only a feeling, and feelings pass.
The situation can be dealt with.
I need a clear decision here.
I will look for a clear decision in myself first, then I will turn to others I can trust.
The voice of fear is the last thing I can trust.
This doesn’t mean that you should fight against your mind. “Calm down” and “There’s nothing to worry about” are useless phrases when other people try them; they are equally useless when you try them on yourself. The mind that fights with itself only adds another layer of anxiety, because when you know that fighting the fear is pointless, you feel more helpless. The way to healing is always the same: find your true self, become whole, rise above the divided self. Even though worry is milder and less disabling than phobias or panic attacks, it needs to be healed if you want to find the kind of inner peace that no one can take away from you.
Published at the San Francisco Chronicle