Wise Worry

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Worry and anxiety are some of the most prevalent forms of mental disturbance. Yet a basic understanding of worry, the purpose it serves, and how to work with worry, can bring relief to many.

The Natural Role of Worry

As disturbing as worry and anxiety can be, it may help to understand them in a naturalistic context. All across our skin, we have an exquisite suite of nerve endings to let us know when something isn’t right. If any part of us gets too hot, too cold, impacted or punctured, we’ll perceive that as pain. Pain isn’t just abstract information. Dependent upon pain’s intensity, It may seize our attention. We don’t like pain. Most of the time we do whatever it takes to get away from pain as fast as possible and this is almost always the right answer, at least in terms of avoiding harm.

But there are conditions where pain fails to work as intended, where pain lingers long after the injury has healed, or when no further mitigation is possible. Such chronic pain conditions demand a different response, since pain’s message of harm are now false.

Worry and anxiety can be a lot like physical pain. In some sense, human beings can sense not just what’s happening at the present moment, but, through our ability to imagine, predict and consider consequences, we can feel future pain. How much better is it to walk wide around a hot stove because we see in advance that it could burn us, than to pull our hand away when we brush against the burner.

Worry can help us mitigate future risk, just as pain helps us avoid further injury. And, like physical pain, worry is aversive. We don’t like the feeling of dread of some upcoming misfortune. We want to get away not just from the future threat, but the present-moment feelings of dread. Worry can also miss the mark, and disturb us about future events that are impossible, or have no mitigation, in much the same way as chronic pain disturbs us to no benefit. Mark Twain said it this way: “I am an old man, and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

Cinema of the Mind

I remember listening to a podcast about “cutters”: people who compulsively scratch or cut their skin. I was driving on a highway at the time, and hearing a description of a woman cutting her thighs when she accidentally cut too deep and severed a major artery. Suddenly, I wasn’t a man in a car listening to a podcast, but I was that woman and my imagination became so strong, I could feel the warmth of blood on my leg. I became nauseous and thought to myself “I am about to throw up in a car on the highway with nowhere to pull off.” Fortunately, I was able to keep control of both the car and my stomach long enough to get off the highway, but I’ll never forget how mere words took me over for a moment.

Sometimes all it takes is a word, or a thought, or a feeling to completely arrest our attention and plunge us into an experience, as if we’re watching a horror movie in 3D-IMAX with Dolby Surround Sound turned up to full blast. In fact, if we evaluated our worries by the same standards that we judge movies, we might come to realize they’re awful films that no one would pay to watch. If our worries were movies, we’d walk out of them before the first act ended, because they’re horribly dull and repetitive, full of improbable misfortunes, inept protagonists, and plot holes galore.

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In the throes of worry, it may take real effort to separate fantasy from reality. The good news is that as soon as you recognize your worries are bad movies, you have the option to “walk out.” Even better, you may realize you’re not just the audience of these shoddy movies, but also the writer and director. Modern films — at least in the West — make a deal with the audience that, while the heroes may suffer along the way, they will be vindicated in the end. Strangely, the films in our heads usually run more towards Grimm’s original fairy tales, which hold little or no hope for anyone in the story. Depression and anxiety make for a horrible writing team when depression tries to tell us that we are inept and unable to cope, while anxiety casts us in the most dire imaginary circumstances. Together they rob us of hope for the future.

Why not update your mental plots to modern standards? Since worry is just a movie, and you’re making it, why not cast yourself as the hero on your best day? In fact, since we frequently tend to underestimate our abilities, why not make yourself a little taller and a little stronger than real life? Let the problems come, but instead of making them bigger than real life, make them realistic. Know that you’ll have good and bad breaks throughout your life, and allow those to color your imagination. Finally, allow yourself a happy ending, if that’s possible, or if there can be no ultimate vindication, at least a noble struggle and moments of triumph. And when you’ve re-made your mental movies this way, recognize that worry has returned to its proper role of a warning and planning system that helps you avoid trouble before it shows up.

Action!

Transforming useless worry to useful planning is one way to overcome anxiety. Another is to live less in your head and more in the world. Some people find it useful to pick a particular time and designate it as “worrying time,” allowing the rest of the day to be given to other concerns. Choosing to focus on something in the present, where you can have a positive impact, gives worry less room to colonize your inner world. More often than not, the thing you worry about fails to materialize, and if you’re busy while waiting for anticipated misfortune, you need not suffer in the meantime.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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