Worry – The Brain’s Attempt To Be Useful – Part 2

Worry takes us out of the present and projects us into an imagined future, and usually the worst possible outcome future. When this happens, we can miss out on our experience of the present. When you notice worry whispering in your ear, try to bring yourself back to the present moment, noticing and labelling your experience of the present: what do you see right now, what objects to you observe, are there people around, if so, what do they look like, what are they doing? Maybe you are driving, what colour are the cars around you, can you read the license plate ahead of you, any bumper stickers to read?  Perhaps you’re in nature? If so what do you hear, are the sounds close by or far away? What do you notice on the ground?  What colours are you aware of as you look around you, notice the temperature of the air, is it cool, warm, crisp, wet? Can you follow your breath as you inhale and exhale, what does the temperature of your breath feel like, where does your breath go? This is the practice of “mindfulness“, paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, without any judgement, simply observing things as they are.

If it is “possible“, anxiety leads to thinking and behaving as if it is “probable“.  Possible and probable are actually very different.  It is possible for me to take a trip to the International Space Station, but how probable is it.  Possible means it might happen, but is not likely to, whereas probable is likely to happen, more closely related to a sense of certainty.  Can you see why thinking and acting as if things are probable rather than possible contributes to worry ?

It you can make a plan, it is a real problem with the possibility of real solutions, the planning solves the problem of worry. Brainstorm ideas and consider realistic solutions to real problems. If you can not make a plan, it is a worry, and worry requires elimination strategies. Worry thoughts are like weightlifters, they are strong and resilient, worry thoughts have established a neurological rut in the brain, a well-worn path. Experimenting with the strategies below helps build new neurological pathways, enabling us to detour out of those old ruts, ‘erasing the trace’ of that old pathway. The most effective strategies are related to thought replacementPlease note: these strategies have to be practiced and used consistently in order to strengthen them.

Singing is the best thought replacement strategy, singing occupies the entire brain and engages a different affective state (feeling state).

“Two-P method”: Pleasant and Productive thought replacement list – when you hear the ‘uh oh’ whisper of worry, take 30 seconds and write down pleasant and productive thoughts instead: who do you love, your favorite foods, your favorite shows, start working on your grocery list or your ‘to do’ list. This helps us take mental steps down a different path, weakening the old worry path. The more persistent and consistent we are with these new strategies, the faster change happens.

“Changing Channels”: when you notice the worry thoughts, start counting things, work on a puzzle, crossword or word-search, whistle a tune, repeat a mantra that reminds you you are safe and okay right now, that you are working towards trusting your ability to cope with whatever comes along, give yourself permission to plan and decide later, for now you will relax

“Cartoon Character Technique”: think of a cartoon character that has a funny/distinctive voice, Daffy Duck, Donald Duck, Elmer Fudd.  Close your eyes and bring up your worry voice and notice how your body changes.  Then make the voice in your head sound like the cartoon character and notice what happens. For most people the disturbing thoughts and any feelings that go along with the thoughts, disappear.

Worry may be serving an unrecognized purpose: (1) it may feel like be a protection to ward off bad things, ie “if I worry about this it won’t happen”, (2) it may be centre of a relationship or part of your identity ‘I”ve always been a worrier”, (if this is the case, try to develop an image of life without anxiety) or (3) it may be important worry without a resolution, for example, worries about the poor health or circumstances of a loved one.  This worry is important to honour, in a contained way.  Experiment with setting aside 10 minutes every day to really experience the worry, set a timer (this tells the brain to stop), light a candle, sit somewhere quiet, imagine the love from your heart going out to that person like the light from the candle.  When the 10 minutes is up, visualize some form of container, that has a lid.  With the lid off, imagine putting all of the worry thoughts into the container.  Put the lid on the container and mentally put the container somewhere, out of your awareness.  If worry thoughts come up through the day, tell yourself ‘stop, I’ll put that in the container to worry about tomorrow”.

The reality is we may not be able to change or control our circumstances, but we can control how we think about/deal with them.  These techniques can help us get back to a place of balance, or calm, so we can deal with the situation more effectively, letting reason and rationality, rather than emotion, run our show.