Don’t Worry Be Happy
As human beings from time to time we all find ourselves worrying over something. You maybe the sort of person who wakes up at 5.00am ruminating over some perceived difficulty you are facing, or just get constantly distracted during the day by some worry that just keeps churning round in your mind. One of the most discussed difficulties with clients in my clinic is rumination, that inability to just let unhelpful thoughts go.
It is often believed that being able to worry is a positive personality trait, that it aids problem solving, that if: ‘I worry hard enough about something in the future, about which I have no real certainty of the outcome then perhaps…..’ Well exactly you can’t predict the future, that would be a unique trick. How many times has the thing you have been worrying about been completely different. For those of you with teenagers; how many hours have you spent talking through worries at school from a presentation to relationship difficulties, to be yourself on tenterhooks all day only to be brushed aside casually when they return home with a ‘oh that, yeah it was great, no worries’. Other beliefs claim that worrying is a motivating force, that worrying protects and prepares against negative outcomes: ‘if I worry about something bad happening then at least I will be emotionally prepared when it does’. ‘Being stressed and worrying is who I am, in my job it’s the only way to get things done!’
Constant worry, Rumination and let’s include here self- criticism, keep your body’s threat (fight or flight) system alive and kicking. Welcome then the sympathetic nervous system; telling your body it needs extra adrenaline and cortisol to make your heart work faster, to feed oxygen to your muscles (in case you need to run) shut down your capacity to actually think rationally and calmly (ever frozen in an interview?) as well as restrict your ability to digest food. Of course I simplify. There are all levels to the body’s stress response but worry and rumination activate processes within your body that if continued for any length of time can affect not only your mental health and wellbeing (I often work with people who are just generally anxious) but also compromise your immune system leaving you open to a range physical illnesses.
There are a whole range of approaches to help ease you away from rumination but above all for me it is about learning to be compassionate to oneself. That is to say endeavouring to treat yourself with kindness and understanding. Being compassionate in fact activates the parasympathetic nervous system (putting the brakes on the threat response); one of the effects being to release the hormones oxytocin (the loved up hormone) and Vasopressin, thus helping to restore the body’s natural balance, lower blood pressure and generally create a feeling of optimism.
· The first action is to bring into your consciousness the fact that you are worrying, even saying to yourself: ‘oh I am worrying’, then state clearly what you are worrying about. You could break this down by asking; what are my thoughts, emotions and how am I behaving?
· The next set of questions to ask yourself are: Is this situation in my control? Is the way I am thinking logical, if I looked at this from another person’s perspective how would it look? Is there evidence to support my thinking this way, are there facts that could help dispute your way of looking at the problem. My favourite question here is: Is worrying about this helpful or unhelpful to my wellbeing at this moment? The answer is usually no!
· So is there anything I can do now? If yes then take action (act rather than worry) even if it means making a list of things to do tomorrow, and then put the list away. You have done all you can do. If the answer is no, the source of the worry is beyond my control, then there are any number of ways to work with this.
You can deliberately change your thoughts or your actions to something positive; getting busy round the house, going for a brisk walk, thinking about a place where you remember feeling serene or safe. You could also help this along by saying to yourself: ‘STOP, CANCEL, CHANGE’ and in your mind imagine, in turn a stop sign, wiping the worry away and then changing to a more positive thought (some people use an elastic band on their wrist to ping when they say stop).
Many of my clients report that writing helps. Often setting down your worries on paper even if you don’t read them back helps to get them said and rationalised. Once written down it is your choice what you do then; worries have been written on balloons and let go, put onto computers and deleted, safely burned, ripped up and thrown away.
You can give yourself allotted worry time each day, condensing your worries into a planned slot. After a time most people come to the realization that it takes a great effort to force yourself to worry.
Learning Mindful Meditation is a longer term solution affecting your overall health and wellbeing. Meditation is a journey of discovery, not only helping you to relax and look at the process of worrying in a new and non- judgmental way but to gain a deep level of understanding about your own mind and body and your relationship to the world you inhabit.
In writing this article I have put together thoughts drawn from a range of therapeutic approaches and all are used within my own practice with clients. As ever I would welcome your thoughts and feedback.
Michelle Krethlow Shaw
Psychotherapist, Counsellor and Hypnotherapist.