The other night I woke and thought to myself, “What have I to worry about?” I realised then what I have always known; we are programmed to worry. I had nothing specific I needed to worry about, but realised that I nearly always have something competing for my attention and worry.
The following morning, whilst eating my breakfast, a thought entered my mind: “What if the card machine isn’t charged when I need it?” Able to catch myself, I was able to let go and come back to the present and my breakfast. This is typical of what happens to all of us every day.
Do you worry? Of course you do; we all do, as it is our natural default position.
When worrying gets out of control, it can lead to anxiety and panic. If excessive, it can cause illness. Worry, which could also be deemed “active problem solving,” is the result of the natural evolutionary response known as ‘fight or flight’, as you focus on “what ifs” or “what could happen.”
Persistent or chronic worrying is what doctors refer to as anxiety. It can impact on your daily life to the point that it interferes with work, relationships, sleep and appetite, and it diminishes your quality of life.
Many people who suffer from anxiety turn to smoking, drinking and drugs (over the counter or prescribed) in an attempt to get some relief from their emotions. Some people comfort eat, whilst others starve themselves. In some cases, when worrying and anxiety gets out of control, it can lead to depression and even suicidal thoughts.
What Causes Anxiety?
We humans are funny creatures, always looking outside ourselves for the answers. We look to external reasons for tension and anxiety.
All kinds of worries flit in and out of our minds: whether we will have enough food to eat, whether we will be able to find a partner so that we are not destined to spend our future alone, whether we will have a pay rise, lose a job, whether our car will break down or whether we will be able to afford a holiday. The list of worries is endless.
We look to “things” as the source of our worries. Often, we project our mind to the future and say to ourselves, “when this happens” or “when that happens, I will be happy and have no more worries!”
Look a little closer and you will see that these external things: job, money, relationships, etc, are not the true cause of the negative emotional states of worry and anxiety.
Worries do not come from outside and are not the result of “external circumstances,” they are the result of “internal circumstances”. Worry, stress, tension and anxiety are all the result of our thoughts.
Accept Worry for What It Really Is.
A worry is nothing more than a thought. Worry occurs when our mind is “future focused”. For example, if you were confronted by a lion or tiger your worry would not be about the fact there is a lion or tiger in front of you. Your worry would be that the lion or tiger might eat you! When you sit an exam your worry is not sitting the exam, but whether you will do well enough to pass! Worry is all about things going wrong, in other words, threats to our existence. Worry is simply a particular type of thought pattern, nothing more. Stress arises as a result of the internal stories we tell ourselves. Those with good imaginations make wonderful worriers!
By going over things in our minds we get stuck in a cycle of thinking, replaying events, projecting forward. As we ruminate over and over we become tense and experience stress. Many engage in what I call “stinking thinking!” that king of negative rumination that spirals into a very black place and which can ultimately result in clinical anxiety or depression.
Because your mind doesn’t know the difference between reality and your imaginings, the thoughts have the same results on the body no matter what. In other words, imagining an event happening causes the same physiological responses as if it were actually happening!
Those who worry experience ongoing irritability, muscle tension, concentration difficulties, indecision and agitation just as though they were actually experiencing the things they worry about. The result is a constant state of arousal, feeling “on edge,” and unable to relax. Often the mental stress will be accompanied by physical stress, headaches, neck ache, back ache, chest tightness and chest pain and so on.
When you learn to recognize worry and anxiety for what it really is, which is simply “thoughts”, it begins to lose its grip on you. With practice, it can become very simple to let go of worry.
Using Mindfulness to let go of Worry.
To begin with, it is important to have a clear understanding of what mindfulness is:
“Paying attention to the present moment, experiencing the present moment non-judgementally, with kindness and compassion.” (Jon Kabat-Zinn)
The easiest way to do this is to use our breath as an anchor. Breathing in and out, paying attention to what is happening in our mind and body, becoming aware of our thoughts – the stories playing out in our minds – as well as the emotions and physical sensations as they are arising. You will soon discover that your mind has a life of its own, taking off into the future or dwelling on some past event. This is totally normal, and when you notice that your mind is no longer on the breath, notice what is on your mind at that moment. Whenever you find yourself worrying about something, note to yourself simply that you’re “just worrying.”
By doing this you begin to witness your thoughts, instead of being in your thoughts. You now have the power to choose to let them go. So notice what is on your mind at that moment and then gently let go, NOT by consciously pushing your thoughts away, but by recognising them and letting them be, as you gently turn your attention back to your breathing, paying attention to the present moment and what you’re doing. Every time you catch yourself worrying – no matter how often – you simply acknowledge, let go and return to your breathing.
Don’t Fight your Feelings
Eckhart Tolle, author of “The Power of Now,” reminds us, “Whatever you fight, you strengthen, and whatever you resist, persists.” The emphasis is always on what is happening, not why it’s happening. It is important not to fight your feelings, simply acknowledge in a non-judgemental way without criticism, without trying to push the thoughts away. You don’t need to spend energy fighting your thoughts, but you also no longer need to follow them and dwell on them. Simply acknowledge them, label them, put them down and move on. As soon as you struggle with the thoughts you give them power. Instead, try to observe your thoughts and worries objectively and with calmness. Simply make a mental note, without giving them any more importance or power than they deserve.
Know that you will face each situation as you come to it and deal with it then. Learn to deal with stress and difficulties more wisely, by responding rather than reacting. Learn to let go of the past and leave the future until tomorrow. Let your “future self” deal with tomorrow and let your “present self” deal with today!
Until next time, Steve.
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Steve Clifford Senior Accredited Integrative Psychotherapist. Accredited Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist.