Worry – The Brain’s Attempt To Be Useful – Part 1

Worry is the brain’s attempt to be useful, and there really is no way to avoid it. From an early age we are trained to focus a large part of our attention on the future, a future which is largely unpredictable and uncontrollable. The sensation of anxiety is the human response to ambiguity, the unknown – it drives us in the direction of problem identification and solution. The neurobiology of worry feels like ‘uh oh’, which the body doesn’t like, so the brain goes on a search for problems, to identify the sense of ‘uh oh’ in order to eliminate the discomfort, the goal is getting the nervous system back into balance.

Worry is a maladaptive attempt to get rid of the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety. Everyone worries – worry is a common experience which if harnessed effectively can serve a useful purpose. Worry is a future-oriented, negative focus on an anticipated situation. Worry often takes the form of ‘what if’ thinking – what if I lose my jobwhat if I fail this examwhat if I get [insert disease here]. Worrying identifies a potential problem – which in some ways can be beneficial, IF it motivates some type of action to prepare or prevent, or come up with a solution. However, most worry is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do, but doesn’t get you anywhere. Worry tends to involve a vicious cycle: worry tells us about problemswe may encounter, which we would prefer to avoid or not have to deal with, but worry itself rarely offers solutions, because the problem hasn’t yet occurred. It is very difficult to come up with an effective solution for a problem that hasn’t yet occurred. In this sense, worry only begets more worry. Worry thoughts are an attempt to establish some sense of predictability and control, over an imagined event.

The worry cycle is maintained when people get caught up in their thoughts and can’t let them go. Pushing down or avoiding the thoughts only makes things worse. When we tell ourselves not to think about something, we actually increase the likelihood that we will think about it – because our attention shifts to being ‘on guard’ for the unwanted thoughts, and by watching for it, we increase the chance we will find it. If I tell you not to think about a pink elephant, what happens ….

Release the expectation that you will never worry again, this is not realistic. Accept that worry in some degree is a fact of being human, our power lies in building effective ways of managing that worry.

It is easy to attach to worry thoughts, they are powerful and grab our attention, therefore one strategy is the skill of simply noticing thoughts, without attaching to, reacting to, or acting on them. This is referred to as having a Teflon Mind by some people – let the thoughts slide out of your mind the same way food slides off a Teflon pan. The goal is to allow worrisome thoughts to pass in and out of your mind without getting stuck on them. One idea is to envision placing each thought that goes through your mind onto a conveyor belt, envision your thoughts moving slowly and steadily across and out of your mind. Don’t try to change the speed of the conveyor belt, or take the thoughts off the conveyor belt, just notice each thought passing through your mind. If you notice the conveyor belt stalls, or the thoughts fall off the belt, just notice that experience and gently return your attention to the conveyor belt, placing each thought on the belt and notice as it moves through your mind. Practise this exercise for at least 5 minutes every day.

Another strategy is labelling your experience. One of the reasons it’s so easy to get caught up in our thoughts is that we buy into the thoughts as truth. Instead of recognizing that the worries are simply thoughts our minds generate – that may or may not be true or accurate, or factual – we believe our thoughts and take them to be facts. Labelling thoughts as ”thoughts” is one way to keep yourself from buying into the worry, or responding as if the thoughts are true. The next time you have a worrisome thought, label the worry as a thought, for example rather than thinking I’m going to fail this exam, make sure to describe the thoughts as just that, “I’m having the thought that I’m going to fail this exam”. Approaching worries this way will help to take a step back from the worry and prevent buying into them as if they are facts, or the truth.