This article describes several methods of overcoming worry, such as problem-solving skills that help people systematically think problems through and work out what to do about them so thoughts about them don't just go around and around in the head causing constant worry but leading nowhere, relaxation techniques, and a method of taking each worry and analysing it to see how realistic it really is.
It also describes a technique for analysing what's wrong in a person's life, and how to go about trying to improve things.
Skip past the following quotes if you'd like to get straight down to reading the article contents and self-help article.
When I look back on all the worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which never happened.
The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
The good Lord gave me a brain that works so fast that in one moment I can worry as much as it would take others a whole year to achieve.
I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several days attack me at once.
Worry is interest paid on trouble before it is due.
--William R. Inge
What were you worried about this time last year? Can't remember?
--Author Unknown, (from Ten Ways to Worry Less and Accomplish More.)
Never bear more than one trouble at a time. Some people bear three kinds -
all they have had,
all they have now,
and all they expect to have.
--Edward Everett Hale
Action is worry's worst enemy.
Put duties aside at least an hour before bed and perform soothing, quiet activities that will help you relax.
No matter how much pressure you feel at work, if you could find ways to relax for at least five minutes every hour, you'd be more productive.
--Dr. Joyce Brothers
This self-help book gives us several suggestions on how we can change our thinking patterns to stop ourselves worrying so much.
But it says doing physical relaxation exercises is very important as well. I've heard that the more worried a person is, the less they can really think straight, because all the anxiety signals in the brain block the intelligent part of the brain from functioning so well because the signals are so strong. So if we relax physically, then we'll be cleverer at learning how to change our thinking patterns, and we'll be more able to concentrate on doing it.
So the book recommends a few relaxation techniques we could try:
This book says there's a technique called progressive muscular relaxation, where you tense and relax various muscles in turn, and it can make you feel more relaxed. Only, you get better at relaxing the more you practice, according to this.
It says some people who did the exercises were checked over after they've done it for a while, and their blood pressure had become a bit lower, as well as their anxiety going down. It says that if that happens to us, our brain will be able to tell our body's more relaxed, so it won't release so many stress hormones, so we'll start to feel better.
It also says that when stress hormones are released a lot, the immune system stops functioning so well for the time while we're stressed. So the more we can relax or stop being so stressed, the better it'll function and be able to fight things off and so the healthier we'll be.
The book says the exercise is done by us tensing groups of muscles in turn and then relaxing them. It doesn't matter which order we do them in. But it's best if we do them in some kind of methodical way, like doing the ones in our legs first and moving upwards, or the other way around.
So, for example, we might start by curling our toes up, or just the toes on one foot to start with, holding them while we very slowly breathe in and out a couple of times, and then relaxing them very slowly while we breathe in and out a few more times.
The more slowly we relax each muscle group in our body after we've tensed it, the more of a feeling of relaxation we'll get, because we'll have more time to enjoy the sensation of gradual relaxation in our muscles.
When we've done both feet, we can move on to tensing our calf muscles, by pointing our toes downwards, or perhaps doing them one by one. then we can hold them tense for a couple of steady, calm breaths, and then release the tension in those, just as we did with the tension in our toes.
Then we can tense the front of the lower legs by turning our feet up at the ankles. We can hold for a couple of breaths as before, and then slowly release the tension in them as we did with the other things.
It's important not to tense anything so much that it hurts though, or that'll defeat the object of trying to relax!
Then we can tense our stomach for a few seconds by pulling it in, and then slowly release the tension.
Then we can tense the muscles in our chest by holding our breath for several seconds, and then slowly exhale, enjoying the feeling of relief.
Then we can tense the muscles in our hands by clenching our fists, holding them tense while we slowly breathe in and out a few times, and then release the tension in them slowly. Or we can do one first and then the other.
Then we can tense our arms, by bending them up tight, and then holding them while we breathe in and out slowly and evenly a couple of times, and then we can slowly relax them. Again, we could do one arm at a time if we prefer.
And then we could tense different arm muscles by straightening our arms out till they're tense, and then holding them for a few seconds, and then we can relax them slowly.
Then we could perhaps tense the muscles in our jaw by biting our teeth together for a few seconds, and then we can relax them.
There are a couple of other things along those lines we could do if we wanted.
It's more relaxing if when we breathe in and out, we can breathe very slowly and steadily.
The book says it might be helpful at first to have the instructions on a tape or CD. Besides meaning we don't have to bother remembering what to do next, it might stop us getting distracted so much.
Well, we could try just doing the muscle relaxation from memory first and see what happens.
But it says that besides the physical relaxation the muscles get from the exercise, we can feel mentally more relaxed as well at the end of it, partly because if we can concentrate on it, it means that all the while we're doing it, we're not worrying about things. So it'll give our minds a break from worry.
So what we're supposed to do is that if a worry comes into our minds while we're doing the muscle relaxation, as soon as we notice, we don't get annoyed with ourselves for not being able to concentrate as well as we'd like, but we just gently push the thought aside and refocus our attention back on the muscle relaxation.
If we get good at gently pushing bothersome thoughts aside and refocusing our attention on the relaxation, it'll be a skill we've developed, so it'll mean we get better at pushing our worrying thoughts aside in other situations as well, so instead of getting absorbed in them so they start ruining our morning or whatever, we can push them aside and get on with something nicer.
It'll take quite a bit of practice before we get that good though.
It's the same thing people do when they're meditating. They sit somewhere comfortable and focus on one thing that makes them feel peaceful, like a plant, or a picture, or even just a bare spot on the wall or the bridge of their nose; and they try to keep their attention there for minutes and minutes; and every time a distracting thought comes into their mind, they just think, "Oh, I'm having a thought about such-and-such a thing now", and then they just let it go away as if they're watching it and it's like a passing car that they see for a few seconds and then it's gone, and they pull their focus of attention back to whatever it was they've decided to focus on for their meditation time. It's a way of stopping the mind becoming flooded with worries. The reason they focus on something is because it's difficult to empty the mind altogether, so if it's at least focused on something nice, there won't be so much room in it for worries to crowd in.
Or they can focus on a phrase that they repeat to themselves over and over again, like, "I'm beginning to feel peaceful and relaxed".
Or they can focus on their breathing as they slowly breathe in and out, pulling their attention back to it every time it strays to a thought that's come into their mind.
I've heard that doing that for several minutes a day can calm anxiety a lot for a while afterwards, because it calms our minds from the worries. And also, if we practice noticing we've had anxious thoughts and then letting them just go by and refocusing our minds on something else, it can become a bit of a habit, so we can start doing that in everyday life, maybe when we're doing the housework or whatever. If we can do that, we won't get absorbed in worries and start feeling worse and worse as we worry more and more, because we'll just notice a worrying thought before it has the chance to make us start feeling that bad, and say to ourselves, "Oh, I've just had that thought" - whatever it is - and then deliberately focus our thoughts on something else.
That doesn't mean we ignore important thoughts. But some thoughts are just troublemakers really - they repeat themselves over and over in our minds, long after we know them by heart, and just make us more and more anxious. We can do without repetitive thoughts like that.
The book says it might well take about two weeks before we see any benefits from this muscle relaxation exercise.
But it says it's worth carrying on with it for the benefit we'll get in the end.
It says it's best if we can do the exercise every day for about half an hour; but if we don't manage to do it every day, it'll still be worth getting down to it as often as we can.
The book says it's best not to do the technique in bed last thing at night, because we might fall asleep before we've finished it. It's best to find some free time during the day, even if it means telling family members we don't want to be disturbed during that time and arranging for someone else to supervise children. Or it can be done when we're out somewhere, maybe in the car.
On the other hand, if we do find it soothing, doing the exercises when we go to bed at night might help us fall asleep.
But during the day, the author recommends people sit up to do the exercises, but perhaps with our heads resting back against something, so we're not so likely to drift off to sleep.
She says it's not important to have absolute quiet or a dark room or anything like that to relax. In fact, if we get good at practising with things going on around us, that'll be good, because then we'll know we can do the relaxation technique anywhere.
The book says that if we often feel dizzy or breathless when we feel anxious, then chances are, it's because we're hyperventilating, which means breathing too fast and perhaps too deeply as well.
It says the reason this can happen is that when we're anxious, our body sends a message to the brain that we're under a threat of some kind, and the brain reacts as if we need to run away. Normally, it controls our breathing without us even thinking about it. So when we're sitting still, feeling relaxed, we might only take shallow breaths, and breathe quite slowly. But if we're doing exercise, we'll automatically breathe more, so more oxygen gets pumped around the bloodstream, because the body uses it as fuel.
The thing is that when we're anxious, the brain automatically takes it that we might need to run away or fight; so without us even thinking about it, it increases the amount we're breathing. The reason it doesn't give us time to think about it is that if we really were under an immediate physical threat and needed to fight or run away, we'd need all the fuel we could get from the oxygen we were breathing in, quickly. We wouldn't have time to think about whether the situation really was a threat, and whether to fight or run away, and what the best strategies were to use if we decided to fight. Say the threat was a bear in the olden days or something. It could've started eating us by the time we'd made a thorough assessment of the situation and decided on the best plan of action. So a part of the brain takes over that does things really quickly, like making us feel stressed and preparing our bodies to fight or run away.
Besides making us breathe more, it can shut down the digestive system for a while so all the oxygen it would otherwise use can be pumped into the big muscles to give them more fuel so they get more strength. But that's why we can feel as if we've got butterflies in the stomach. All the other physical symptoms we experience at times like that are to do with the body getting ready to run away or fight as well. One is that we might feel as if our heart's beating faster. The body deliberately does that, so it can pump more oxygen around the system to give the muscles more fuel.
The thing is that because the brain reacts so quickly, just in case we really are in danger and need to save our lives, it often makes mistakes of judgment. It can get our bodies ready to run away or fight when we don't need to do that at all. We might just be worrying about paying the bills or whether the kids are going to pass their exams or something! So we get all these physical symptoms, that would actually help us if we really did need to fight or run away; but since we don't, they just make us feel uncomfortable, because things are happening that don't need to happen.
But we can calm them down. If we deliberately control our breathing for a few minutes and make it go slow and quite shallow, then the brain will get the message that we're not in danger and we don't need all that extra oxygen after all; so it'll stop sending out all the alarm signals that make the body ready for action, and it'll get back to its usual functioning.
So one thing we can do is to sit still for several minutes, and breathe very slowly and fairly shallowly, focusing our attention on our breaths to stop us worrying and making things worse. If it's comfortable to breathe in through the nose, it's better, since we don't take so much air in that way. But it isn't really important. Breathing through partly closed lips can be just as good.
We can make things feel as if the air's just drifting into our nose slowly. We can breathe in very slowly and gently for a few seconds, and then hold our breath for a few seconds, and then breathe out again.
Or we can pretend there's a little bowl of flower petals or icing sugar just under our nose, and that we have to breathe out without making any blow away.
As we're breathing out, it can calm us even more if we think the word relax to ourselves, because that'll remind us to relax any part of ourselves that's tense.
If we practise the breathing technique a few times a day for several minutes each time, we can find it's often quite relaxing. Since we only have to practise for a few minutes in any one go, it'll be easy to make the time for it.
At other times we can just forget about our breathing. Worrying about whether we're breathing too fast, or whether we'll do the breathing technique right, will just make us more anxious, so it'll defeat the object.
Some people find they feel anxious when they're doing the relaxation technique. Maybe it's because sitting still allows worries to come crowding into the mind. Drawing our attention away from them to focus on what we're doing can help. But if we start to get very anxious, we can give up for the day and try again tomorrow. And if we get anxious again then, we can give up and try again the next day. The more we get used to doing the relaxation exercises, the less anxious we'll be and the more they'll help.
We can keep records of how the relaxation exercises make us feel if we like, since that can help encourage us sometimes. What we could do is think of our anxiety as being on a scale of one to ten, with one being hardly anxious at all, and ten as being in a horrible panic. We can ask ourselves what number on the scale our anxiety is before we start each relaxation exercise, and then when we finish it, we can ask ourselves again, and we can write the numbers down, with the date, and how long we did the relaxation exercise for. If we discover we're getting more and more relaxed as time goes on, we'll be encouraged to continue.
It'll also help us work out what relaxation exercise works best for us.
So maybe we could buy a notebook or something to use for our records.
It's interesting that this book says that doing exercise can get rid of anxiety.
If only I could find an exercise I enjoyed.
It says it releases the body's natural pain killers, endorphins.
Oh yes, I've heard of those. I'm not sure I've got any though.
It says they help with reducing stress as well.
That sounds good, but I'm sure I've done exercise in the past and just felt worse in the end, because it tired me out and made my muscles hurt and so it reminded me of how unfit I am. So much for natural painkillers that relieve stress!
Still, I have heard people say they do feel better and as if they have more energy after exercise. And thinking about it, sometimes I feel a bit depressed, but then I go out for a quick walk somewhere, and I do end up feeling better afterwards. Perhaps the secret is just not to overdo it, or that we should build up to strenuous things gradually.
It says new research has even found that exercise can help new brain cells grow, particularly helping with emotions and memory.
Well, I didn't know that! That sounds good.
It says exercise can also help people sleep better.
Oh good. Yes, I could do with that. So that could be one reason to do more, if I could find a type I liked.
It says that everyone knows it's also good for the health. It says it keeps bones and muscles strong, controls weight and helps keep the heart healthy.
It says there are a lot of people who don't exercise regularly though.
Oh good, well, I mean at least I'm not the only one.
It's nice that it says it's understandable that a lot of people don't exercise regularly, since there are so many other commitments in life, like working long hours and spending a lot of time travelling to work and back; taking children to out-of-school activities, and maybe studying part-time and doing other things.
It says it's understandable that people also don't want to exercise when they're unfit, since it's difficult to get motivated to get started and get into a routine, especially if it doesn't feel that good at first, and muscles can ache at first.
But it gives a few suggestions on what might help us get started.
It says one thing that might help motivate us is if we think of all the reasons we would like to do more exercise, like perhaps that we could do with getting a bit of weight off and we know it'll make us more healthy, ...
and I, for one, would like to see if those endorphins really do start kicking in once I get the hang of things.
It recommends we write down our reasons for wanting to exercise, and look at them a lot to remind ourselves, especially when we're tempted not to bother with the exercise just yet or to miss out on days once we start.
It recommends we build things up gradually and don't expect too much of ourselves at first, maybe starting off with a brisk walk for about fifteen minutes three times a week. It says that after a while, as it gets easier, we can gradually increase the distance we walk or the number of walks we do.
It recommends we find someone to go with if we can, since it says companionship can make exercise more enjoyable, and we can be more motivated to go out if we know someone's expecting us to.
Yes, if I can find someone to go with, I think I'll enjoy myself more.
And it says if we're with someone we enjoy being with, exercise often doesn't seem so tiring, since being with them takes our minds off the hard work we're doing and paying attention to any signs of tiredness we're feeling. It says people often don't get anywhere near so tired when they're enjoying themselves, since our attitude has a lot to do with what makes us tired. Boredom or anxiety can make us feel worn out, and we might think it was the exercise that did that, but if we do exactly the same exercise but enjoy it, or we're concentrating on someone else so our minds are taken off ourselves and what we're feeling, it seems the body can muster up more energy and not feel nearly so tired at the end.
Perhaps it's those endorphins.
It recommends that when we don't feel like going out, we compromise with ourselves, reminding ourselves of the reasons we want to exercise more to motivate ourselves a bit, and deciding that we will go out, but that we'll exercise for less time, perhaps ten minutes instead of fifteen or something.
It recommends we keep a record of every exercise session, including what we did, how far we went, how long we exercised for, and if we felt any benefits. It says that when people keep records, they're more likely to stick to what they're doing.
I wonder whether that's because written records can encourage us when we look back over them and see how our fitness has improved or how we felt better afterwards a lot of the time, or whether it's because we don't want the humiliation of having to look at gaps all over our records where we haven't done what we made up our minds to do.
The book suggests we do a variety of different types of exercise, to stop ourselves getting bored with the same thing.
The book says that any kind of exercise will do us good.
Oh really? There must be some out there that could do you more harm than good. What about tightrope walking? Or trying to swim the Atlantic? ... Well, I expect it means within reason.
It says walking's probably the easiest and gentlest type of exercise, and it can provide everything we need from exercise.
It says that anxiety sufferers would do well to do some kind of activity that relieves stress every day, whether that be exercise, or some type of relaxation class or technique.
Well, I don't know if I could manage classes in these things every week. But I'll think about what I could do.
The book says that ideally, people need to do three or four sessions of aerobic exercise a week to get fit. But we don't need to worry if that sounds daunting, because we can work towards that gradually. And it's best to build up the muscles gradually anyway, rather than doing too much at once, exhausting ourselves and putting ourselves off ever going again. So gentle exercise to start with is best.
The book says a lot of people think their worrying just starts off out of the blue, or that they're always worrying, but that actually, things usually trigger it off, whether they be things people have said that start them off on certain trains of thought, or things they see that remind them of things, like Christmas decorations that might start them worrying about all the Christmas preparations they need to make, and that kind of thing.
Sometimes, people can find themselves feeling depressed or anxious, and not really knowing why. But they can work out why if they can work out what triggered it off, like something someone said that reminded them of certain things or made them feel gloomy and started them thinking of things that depress them. If we can work out what often starts our worry sessions, if there are a few things that often do that, then there might be things we can do to stop them doing that in the future.
For instance, if we notice that someone talking about failing things does it, because it sets our brains on a train of thought that makes us worry about being failures ourselves and being a waste of space because we don't think we're doing anything worthwhile in life, even if we are really, then there are things we might be able to do to stop that happening in the future.
For example, we can write down some of the horrible thoughts we have, and then go through each one of them, pretending to be a lawyer arguing in our defence, or a good friend of ours. The idea is that we put forward all the evidence we can think of against those thoughts being true. So we could perhaps imagine our exaggerated worrying thoughts are being put there by a worry monster, and the worry monster's being taken on by a defence lawyer out to defeat its arguments.
So, for example, if one of our thoughts is that we'll never get anywhere in life because we're failures, we could think through our lives, noting down all the successes we can think of, from exams we've passed, to any sporting achievements, to any good things we can think of that we can remember people saying about us, to jobs we've held down, to friendships we've had that have lasted, to any other types of achievements we can think of. We can pretend to be the lawyer bringing up each one and arguing that those things must mean we're not failures in life.
We can do that kind of thing for all kinds of negative thoughts we have.
If we do that kind of thing several times, then hopefully it'll stop bothering us when people talk about failure or whatever it is that's triggered off our worry sessions in the past, and so we can listen to people talking about it without starting to feel gloomy or anxious.
Or sometimes, if we work out that some of the things that make us anxious and depressed are things that just aren't necessary in our lives, we can stop doing them. For instance, if the news or soaps on the television often make us depressed or anxious, we could do something else instead of watching them.
It can help us work out what starts us worrying if every time we notice we are, we can think back to when we started and what happened just before we started, trying to think of why it started us worrying.
I know I started feeling depressed and worried yesterday because my parents were going to come and see me that day, and then travel on to visit someone else in the area. It was raining, and there was a strong wind, that might have been blowing big branches off trees and things, so I wasn't sure it would be safe to drive and hoped they'd put the visit off. But they phoned me and said they'd come anyway, because they thought it would be inconvenient to put their visit to the other person off. After the phone call, I suddenly felt really depressed. I didn't know why for a while. I went to the fridge and got some chocolate out, hoping it would make me feel better. I enjoyed it, but went back to feeling just as depressed after I'd eaten it. Then I thought about things, and realised what thoughts had gone through my head just before I'd started feeling depressed. I had wondered if they might have an accident because of branches blowing down into the road, so I thought it might be better if they'd decided not to come. I hadn't been worrying about their journey that much before I started feeling depressed. I thought at first that it had come on for no good reason. But then I realised why it must have come on.
Anyway, the wind died down soon after that and it stopped raining, so it turned out to be allright after all. If it hadn't, I suppose the way to deal with my feelings and concerns about what was happening, after I'd worked out that that was the trigger for me to start feeling depressed, would have been to phone them up again and debate with them some more about how I thought it was dangerous to travel that day.
But anyway, this book says it can be helpful if when we notice we're worrying or we feel gloomy or something like that, we think back to just before it started, and try to remember what we were thinking then, or what happened, whether it was a conversation, something someone said, something we saw, perhaps around the house, around the town, on television or whatever, something we read, or whatever it was.
If we can't remember it, it doesn't matter, because if it was the kind of thing that often triggers off our worries, it'll happen again soon, so we might remember it then.
So in the records we write, it's best if we write down what started the worry episode off, what we started worrying about, and anything we did that stopped it.
If we discover certain things that stop it, it's good to write them down, because if they worked once, chances are they'll work again. So if they're written down, it can stop us forgetting about them.
Sometimes, the things that stop people worrying can have absolutely nothing to do with the worries themselves. They can be something that distracts us from them. There's a story in this book about someone who was always worrying she might have a horrible illness; and one of her worry records said she started worrying about it one day after a friend told her about her sister who'd just become ill. She worried and worried about whether she herself might have something horribly wrong with her for hours, until it was time to pick the children up from school. Then she went and did that, and the children were all lively and talked excitedly about things they were doing, and her worries just vanished for a while because she started thinking about those things.
We can also write down any things we've tried to do to get rid of our worries that didn't work That'll remind us to try other things in future.
Also, sometimes it can help to note down the times each session of worrying started and finished, and how bad we think it was, on a scale of one to ten, with one being not bad at all, to ten being really horrible. It might turn out that we don't worry for as long as we're under the impression we do, and that there are times in our worry sessions when the worry isn't all that bad. If it isn't as bad as we're under the impression it is, it can help us feel more optimistic.
On the other hand, it might prove to us that worrying about something isn't worthwhile at all, because we don't feel any less anxious about it at the end of a worry session than we did at the beginning, and possibly feel worse about it. Or if we do feel better about it for a little while, the worry might come back just as bad as it was before later, so it turns out there wasn't any point in all the worrying we did before.
The book says it's common for people with generalised anxiety disorder to worry so much that they feel distressed at not being able to control it and think it might even drive them crazy. But at the same time, they'd be reluctant to give up worrying altogether, because it does serve some purpose in their lives, even if they're not all that aware of it.
For instance, it says that if something's making us unbearably anxious, such as if we're concerned we might have a serious health problem, worry might seem a good way of relieving the anxiety a bit, if we don't know how else to relieve it, because at least it feels as if we're doing something about the problem.
Some people think that worrying will help them solve problems. But the book says there are far better ways of doing that. The trouble with trying to solve problems by worrying is that as we get more and more anxious with worry, our thoughts about how bad the problems are can get more and more exaggerated, and so instead of focusing on what we can do about them, we spend the time thinking up worse and worse possibilities about what might happen, and the thoughts can just repeat themselves over and over again, so we don't really get anywhere.
Some people think that if they worry, they're preparing themselves for the worst so they'll cope better if it happens, and that they'd rather have thought about it first than that it takes them by surprise. But really, things often don't happen the way we expected them to, and it's been found that people who worry a lot that they won't cope actually cope better when bad things do happen than they ever thought they would when they were worrying they wouldn't. And they can ruin a lot of their lives worrying about things that never do happen.
The book says that some of the ways people think worrying benefits them are really just superstitious. For instance, we might think that if a particular anxious thought has come into our minds about something happening, it means it's more likely to happen, so it's worth worrying about. But anxious thoughts can come into the mind for all kinds of reasons, such as if we've just heard something on the news about something bad happening to someone and think, "What if it happened to me?" It's this thing about triggers again. There might be something that's set our train of thought on something, and we wonder why we've started worrying about it, but it was just because of something someone said or something we saw that triggered off a certain train of thought about something it reminds us of and so on.
But some people think that if they've thought about something happening, it makes it more likely to happen. So that can make them worry about it really happening. But it isn't really more likely to happen. But the book says there are two ways people justify thinking it is:
One is the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy, about how people can bring something on by their own attitudes. That really means that people can behave in the way you predict they'll behave. But there's nothing magical about the way that works. It doesn't just happen because of your thoughts. For instance, if you keep telling a child they'll never achieve anything in life, they'll start to believe you, and then chances are they won't bother trying to achieve anything because they don't believe they can, so they won't; and then it'll be as if you've been proved right in your prediction that they'd never achieve anything, when in reality, it was because of your own behaviour that it happened, because the things you said made them decide not to bother trying, because they were no longer confident they'd succeed.
Or if you think that you yourself won't ever achieve anything in life, you might not bother trying to achieve anything, so you won't; and it'll be as if you were right all along, when what really happened was that you didn't have the confidence to try to achieve anything, because you didn't believe you could. That kind of thing wouldn't happen merely because you thought something.
Or if you worried you were going to fail an exam, you might really fail it, but not just because you worried about it, but because you started spending more time worrying than studying, couldn't sleep properly because of the worry, so couldn't concentrate properly. So when you failed, you might think you'd been proved right; but it wouldn't just have been your thoughts that did it; it would've been the way you responded to the thoughts you had.
And there might be lots of times you worried about failing but didn't. So that's more proof that the worry in itself didn't make it happen.
People might get the impression that thoughts on their own can make things happen by hearing sportsmen talk about how they think they have a better chance of succeeding because they've been telling themselves they're going to succeed and imagining themselves succeeding. Research has found that doing that can help people succeed. But it won't have been the thoughts in themselves that make them more likely to succeed, but the way the thoughts have made them more optimistic they can, so they go out with more zeal to try harder.
Actually, there is one circumstance in which worrying about things can literally make them happen. But there's nothing mysterious about it. If we're worrying that when we meet someone or do some public speaking or something that bothers us, we might get really anxious, worrying that our brains might even freeze up and we won't be able to think about what to say because we're so anxious, then it is more likely to happen, because when we do that thing we were worrying about, we'll get really anxious because we fear getting frightened of it, and our anxiety will make us more likely to have a brain freeze-up or to show obvious signs of anxiety.
The author says superstitious thinking can make people more anxious and make them worry more. The kinds of beliefs people can hold that can make them do that can be ones like:
Those kinds of things can be more in the subconscious than things we actually think through. So people might not realise they're making assumptions like that till they really think about it.
But when they realise they hold an attitude like that, they can reason it through, thinking of evidence against the idea.
We can easily prove to ourselves that worrying about something bad doesn't make it less likely to happen just on its own. After all, if that was the case, perhaps we could stop wars if enough people worried enough. Action has to be taken to stop bad things happening. There are problem-solving techniques we can use that mean worry is just unnecessary. The book talks about some.
It's important for us to realise that there are better ways of solving problems than worrying about them before we try to give up worrying, otherwise we'll just get more anxious because we're not worrying so much. And then we might think there must be something wrong because we're feeling anxious, so we'll worry more, when in reality, the anxiety just came on because we were feeling uncomfortable about giving up our bad worry habit.
If we think about all the ways worrying destroys the quality of our lives, we should be able to easily decide that it really isn't worthwhile, especially if we get to like the idea of doing other things that work better at solving problems.
The author says it's common for people who worry a lot to vastly over-estimate the chances of something going wrong; and once we start worrying that one thing will go wrong, it's easy to think up all kinds of horrifying possibilities about what might happen if that thing does go wrong, till we get more and more anxious.
The author gives the example of one woman who worried and worried about her teenage children when they went out with friends. She worried they might have had an accident and been injured, or been taken ill, or kidnapped, and things like that. She'd phone them several times when they were out to make sure they were allright. When she couldn't speak to them any time, she started wondering if they were ill or injured and whether she should call the hospitals to try to find them. She was dramatically over-estimating the chances of something bad happening to them. And all the time she was, they were fine, and she was ruining her life with worry.
The author says she knew someone else who was worried sick that he'd failed some important exams. It turned out that he got one of the highest marks of the lot. But he was worried not only that he'd fail, but that if he did, he just wouldn't be able to cope! He thought he'd never live down the humiliation! He thought all kinds of things might go wrong in his life if he failed!
But really, nothing anywhere near that bad was likely to happen. Also, if he did fail, he'd probably have been able to cope with it much better than he thought he would.
The book says it's common for people who worry a lot to be able to cope with bad things when they happen much better than they ever thought they would. It says some people think coping means being cool, calm and collected every minute of the day, when really, it just means getting through it. Everyone will have times of stress when they're trying to cope with bad things. It's unlikely that anyone deals with tough things absolutely perfectly, without getting anxious or being in a quandary about what to do for a while.
The author recommends that anyone who's been through difficulties in their lives asks themselves what they did to get through them. We worry that we won't be able to cope, but really, we have coped. And even if we were stressed and anxious, other people probably would have felt the same as us in our position even if they weren't chronic worriers so stress and anxiety would have just been normal, and we did get through the difficulties somehow. The author recommends we think about how we managed to cope, and whether it was as difficult as we thought it would be. If we coped before, we'll probably know we can do it again. If we know we have skills we can use in difficult situations, we don't have to worry about not being able to cope. And if we coped despite the added burden of all our worries, that's something we can actually be proud of, because that was something extra we had to deal with, and yet we still coped.
The author says one man who came to see her for therapy about his worry developed cancer during the time when he was seeing her, and survived it. He said afterwards that he'd become more confident about being able to cope with things because of that. If he could cope with something that bad, then he was sure he'd be able to cope with other things.
She says there's some new research about how people in general tend to over-estimate the harm that bad events will cause them, and the joy they'll get from good ones. She says it's been found that good events can cause a lot of pleasure for a while, but then people go back to normal. And people can think some bad events will be absolutely devastating and they'll never get over them, whereas in reality, people often suffer intense distress for a while, but then they do get over them. And even the distress they suffer isn't as bad as they thought it would be.
Even people who haven't coped in the past, perhaps being so anxious and depressed they had a breakdown and maybe needed time in hospital, don't have to worry about the future as much as they might, because they might cope a lot better in the future, especially if they learn new skills, like stress management and problem-solving skills, which they can.
The author says she recommends people to "focus on the present, and the future will take care of itself". That means that if we work on solving problems today, chances are we won't have so many in the future, since problems tend to grow the more we leave them. I mean, to give a simple example, if we didn't pay an electricity bill because we didn't have much money but just worried about what was going to happen, then we might get our electricity cut off, so we'd have much more to worry about. If instead of spending our time worrying when we first got the bill, we planned what to do, such as sold some of our stuff on Ebay to get money we could use to pay it, we'd be taking care of the future.
But also, no one can predict the future. So we might worry and worry about some things happening, and then completely different ones happen that we didn't expect at all. And we have to spend time coping with those, and it would have been nice to have had the time beforehand to enjoy ourselves while we could, rather than worrying about the things that didn't happen.
The book says uncertainty causes a lot of worry, such as if the boss says he wants to see us in his office the next day and we don't know why. Once we start worrying, we can think up all kinds of scary possibilities about what might happen and ruin hours and hours of our life thinking up things that might never happen. We might think this kind of worry's uncontrollable; but actually, we can control it once we learn how.
The book says there are two types of thoughts, ones that just pop into our heads involuntarily, like if we hear a car coming up the road and we wonder if it's someone we know, and ones that we let ourselves have, in response to a thought that's come into our minds involuntarily. Those are the ones where we start to worry and worry, like if we wondered if the car might belong to someone who wanted to rob houses on our street, and then started worrying about how we'd cope if someone got out of the car and smashed our window, or rang the doorbell and we answered it without knowing who they were and they were a burglar. If the car stopped, and we looked and didn't recognise it, we might get even more worried that that was going to happen.
We can let our imaginations run away with us like that, making us more and more anxious, or we can think something like, "Hang on, that's not very likely, is it! It's possible of course, but the odds are rather small" and go and turn the radio on and get involved in a job that needs doing, so we're distracted and stop worrying.
It's a shame if we ruin hours of our life by worrying about things that never happen.
We do have a choice about whether we go off into worry sessions, even if we're used to getting entangled in them and letting them make us anxious before we even start wishing we hadn't or realising we've gone and done it again. Once we know what to look out for, it'll be easier to stop thoughts like that in their tracks.
The book says we can think of the first worrying thought that pops into our minds as if it's a partner asking us if we want to dance. We can either accept and let it carry us away into a worry session, or we can decline the offer and turn away from it, focusing our attention on something else.
We can't just stop worries by trying not to think them, because the act of trying not to think them means they're on our minds, so we'll actually think about them more. What's better is if we just focus our attention on something different. If we get absorbed in something else, we'll just forget the worry we were just having for a while. If we keep doing that, the worry habit should start to fade away. It's like a habit that we'll have the urge to do more the more we do it. But the less we do it, the less we'll have the urge to, especially if we get into the habit of dismissing the worries and then focusing our attention on something more enjoyable to think about instead.
Or we can ask ourselves questions to determine if the worry's really worth having.
Worrying thoughts often start with "What if ...". Sometimes they can start with other things like, "If only" or "How will I", or other things like that. If we think about what phrases our worries usually start with, then we can be alert for thoughts that begin with them, and whenever we catch ourselves having one, we can think something to ourselves like, "Oh, there goes my mind again, starting to worry".
If we're not sure of an answer anywhere along the way, we can think it through some more.
If we decide that something really is a problem and we can't think of any one obvious solution, there are problem-solving techniques we can use:
The problem of life is to change worry into thinking and anxiety into creative action.
--Harold B. Walker (from Think or Worry?)
Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.
The author of the book says there's a problem-solving technique that's easy and effective. She says her patients have tried it and tend to find it often takes about half an hour to 45 minutes, which, though it means you have to find time to sit down and work on it for that long, it's far better than the hours and hours and even days we can often spend worrying about something without deciding on a solution.
She says there are six steps to the technique:
We should make the description as detailed as possible, writing it down. The more detailed it is, the more solutions we're likely to be able to come up with.
For instance, if we wrote down the problem as, "My boss really gets on my nerves", we wouldn't think there were many solutions to that except leaving the job. But if we pondered over exactly why the boss got on our nerves and wrote down the reasons why, like maybe, "He always gives me lots of work just when it's coming up to home time and expects me to get it all finished before I go", then we might decide to have a talk with him about it, or be able to think of several other possible solutions to it. He might be nice a lot of the time, but thinking about the work overload has just made us think it's bad all the time.
Or if someone was offered the chance of early retirement from a job they didn't like, they might worry over whether to take the pay-out that came with the deal or stay in the job. But it would be better not to write that down as the problem, because then they'd think they only had those two options; it would be better if they asked themselves what was stopping them taking the pay-out when they didn't like their job, and then they'd have more of an idea of what problem they were really facing, since it might be that they were worried the money would run out and then their family wouldn't have enough if they weren't in the job any more. If they wrote down that as the problem instead, then they could think of things they could do to try to make sure the family didn't run out of money, rather than just thinking they just had a choice of staying in the job they didn't like or taking early retirement.
So analysing a bit to think of what the problem really is will help us.
That would include trying to think of new and inventive solutions that might never have occurred to us before.
Also, if a solution doesn't sound very realistic, we should write it down anyway, because it might turn out to be better than we thought at first, or thinking about it might give us other ideas. If it isn't realistic in itself, perhaps a modified version of it would be.
The next step is one where we think about all the solutions carefully to work out the pros and cons of all of them. So it's not as if we might be stuck doing something we think is unrealistic.
We could discuss the matter with friends and family when it comes to a problem we're happy with them knowing about, and write down any possible solutions they come up with as well.
We take the solutions one by one, and examine them. We'd have to consider issues like:
And we can consider other things like that.
The pros and cons of each solution will have to be written down, or it'll be easy to forget a lot of them, especially if someone interrupts us and we have to go and do something else for a while.
Writing them all down might take a bit of time, but the whole exercise might take less than an hour, although it might take a fair bit longer; but when compared with the days we could spend worrying without thinking of any solution, it should be well worth it.
Some pros and cons will be much more worth taking into account than others. So we could give them a rating. We could put one star beside each one that isn't all that important, two stars next to one if it's fairly important, and three if it's very important to us.
Also, we can use the stars to give a rating of how likely we think something is to happen. For instance, if we thought of leaving our job because the boss was giving us too much work just before hometime, we could think through what might happen if we did - the advantages and disadvantages. If we decided that one disadvantage might be that we might go through the upheaval of finding a new job only to find the boss there did the same thing as the one in our current job, then we could estimate how likely it was to happen. If we thought it was unlikely, we could give it one star, despite the fact that if it did happen, it would be a very important concern for us.
We could perhaps put the pros and cons on the same page in separate columns, or possibly on several pages titled "Pros of Solution 1", "Cons of Solution 1", "Pros of Solution 2", and so on.
After we've thought through the pros and cons of every possible solution, we decide which has the most or most important pros, and the least or least important cons, and that's the one we choose.
If some of are pros and cons are things we're uncertain about, such as if one of our possible solutions to not getting home until late because the boss always gives us lots of work to do just before hometime is to move house so we're closer to the job, (which would be a bit drastic) - but we don't know if it would be a good idea because we don't know if we'd be able to afford a house closer to our work and so we're wondering whether to put the possibility that we won't be able to afford anything down as a con, we could look at the prices of houses around the place in estate agents' windows or in columns in newspapers advertising houses to let before we decide how high to rate it as a con. If we found we could afford some, we wouldn't have to rate it as a con at all.
If the answer to a dilemma we might have when trying to decide how much of a pro or con something is isn't so clear-cut, because we can't go and find the answers as easily as that, we can just make as realistic an estimate as we can about how significant a concern or a plus point it is.
For instance, say we were worrying about an upcoming visit from relatives:
Before we could write that down as a problem, we'd have to ask ourselves why we were worried about that, since just writing down that we were worried about the visit wouldn't give us any ideas for possible solutions.
If we were worried because we didn't really get on with them and we wanted something to do with them that would mean they were occupied with something so they weren't so likely to start arguments, we could maybe write down as our initial problem,
"What can I do to entertain my relatives so they won't start their usual arguments, because they'll be too preoccupied?"
One of our possible solutions could be that we could go for a brisk walk with them.
When we'd written down all the possible solutions we could think of, we'd want to look at the pros and cons of each. When we were looking at the pros and cons of that one:
We might decide that one of the pros of it was that we'd be out of the house so they wouldn't be sitting around getting bored, since it's then that they start most arguments.
But We might decide that a con was that if we planned to do that, we didn't know if it was going to rain. We wouldn't be able to find out whether it would or not for certain, so we could perhaps guess, and leave it a bit uncertain, and just not have that as the only solution we decided on, although it could be one of two or more alternative choices of solutions we decided on in the end to make nearer the time, according to what the weather was like and things.
But wherever we can, it helps if we can try to find out information so we can be certain about how important a consideration something is, because the more information we have before making a decision, the less we'll worry about it.
When we're examining a possible solution for pros and cons, it's best if we can be as realistic as we can about how important a pro or a con is, and how difficult it would be to put into operation, which will help us decide how highly to rate it. Being too optimistic about it or too pessimistic will mean we're really being unfair to ourselves.
For instance, if we were thinking through possible solutions to the problem of what to do when our relatives come visiting to stop the afternoon turning into a bickering fest, one possible solution we might come up with could be to take them out to look around a museum. That might sound nice, but if there's actually quite a high likelihood of their children breaking things before the day's out, then thinking it would be nice would be being too optimistic and it might not be such a good idea at all.
Or the opposite kind of thing might happen: If we're fed up because the boss keeps loading us down with work just before hometime, we might think one possible solution is to find another job. That might seem the best one. But it might be just our emotions telling us that, when really, we're being too pessimistic about what else might work, because far less drastic a thing might solve the problem, like having a discussion with him about it.
So it's important that we try to look at things when we're feeling calm enough to think clearly, so we can try to get as good an idea as we can about how attractive any one solution's really likely to be.
When we've thought of all the pros and cons we can to every solution we put down, we can go through each solution, counting up the number of stars there are in the pros section for it and the number in the cons section. We can think again about the solutions that have the highest number of stars in the pros sections along with the lowest number in the cons sections.
We might decide to go with the best one, or we might decide that two or more seem attractive, so we'll look into them both.
For instance, if we decide that politely requesting that the boss gives us most of the work at a different time of day and explaining why that would be more convenient for us would be the best solution to a problem where we were being given too much work near hometime, but we liked the idea of moving closer to our job so we wouldn't have so far to travel to work as well, then we might speak to the boss, but also look into moving house at some point, or decide to move house if we speak to the boss but nothing changes.
It's important that we're the ones to decide on the best solution. Someone else might try to push us into choosing the solution they suggested after we've explained to them that we're thinking through solutions to the problem, but it's important that we choose the one we're personally happiest with, so it's best to thank them for their concern but politely tell them that. The best solution for one person might not be the best one for somebody else, because there might be different factors involved.
For instance, if a friend of ours had been to see a play and loved it, they might recommend we take our visiting relatives to see it. But we might know that their children are so disruptive they'd never sit through it without creating a nuisance for people around them. So we might prefer to do something we've chosen ourselves.
We might have to come to a decision about a solution without knowing all the facts. It may be that after we've put the solution into operation, we find out new information that makes us realise it wasn't a good one after all and another one would have been better. There's no guarantee of success with the problem-solving technique. But it should work a lot of the time. And when we do find out more information afterwards that makes us realise the solution we chose wasn't the best one after all, we can always do the problem solving technique again, taking the new information into account.
It's important that we spend time working out exactly how we can best put the solution into practise.
For instance, if we decided to speak to the boss about him overloading us with work just before hometime, it would be worthwhile for us first to decide when to see him. We might see a lot of him during the day, but if there are other people around, it might be best not to mention it in front of them, in case he feels humiliated at being asked to change his ways in public and gets annoyed with us for it. So it would probably be better just to ask him if we can make an appointment to see him in his office at a time of his convenience, or to email him.
Once we've decided what to do about that, it's worth deciding how we're going to say what we say. If we sound as if we're complaining and blaming him for the problem, that might annoy him so he'll be less likely to listen. Also, if we just mention the problem without telling him what we'd like done about it, the discussion might go in completely the wrong direction, because we might end up arguing over whether the amount of work he gives us really is too much or something. So it would be better to make it sound more of a polite request, so instead of talking about what went wrong, we'll hopefully end up talking about how best to put it right. First of all we could explain why getting so much work just before hometime inconveniences us, with the focus on how we feel about it rather than on something that sounds blaming, but then we can move straight on to suggesting a solution, like asking if it would be convenient for the boss to give us the work in the mornings or in the early afternoons.
It might well be a good idea if we decide to practice what we're going to say to the boss the evening before we have the appointment.
It's this amount of detail we might need to think through when we're planning how to put our chosen solution into operation. We probably won't be able to think of everything. But we can think through how we can do things in the best way we know how to anyway.
Solutions to some problems might be a lot more complex to put into operation, with a lot more to plan out. But we can plan what we can, perhaps even looking months into the future to decide on worthwhile things to do to help the solution along, and then we can add to the plans later if need be.
A good thing to do is to decide while we're still doing the problem-solving technique when and how we're going to have a review of it to ponder on how well our solution worked and what to do if it didn't.
Some reviews are one-off things, while some reviews might be ongoing over months or something.
For instance, we could plan to set aside time during the evening of the day we had our appointment with the boss about him overloading us with work to review how it went. If the appointment goes well, we could decide at that review that no further action needs to be taken unless the problem recurs. If things didn't go so well, we can use the time to decide on what to do next, whether that be to choose an alternative solution from our list, to do the problem-solving technique again, or something else.
If we decide on another solution, we could set a review date if possible to think about how that one went and decide what to do next.
Some reviews, though, might go on for some time, not just a little bit of time set aside one evening or whatever. An example would be if our relatives who were the parents of two children were getting upset because the older one kept biting and hitting the younger one. They might do a problem-solving technique and decide to get some advice from a psychologist or self-help book. When they got the advice, they might want to put it into operation for a couple of months before they could be sure it was working. So they might first spend a week or so just counting how many times the older child hurt the younger one each day, and then try the strategies, and keep counting how many times each day the older child hurt the younger one, and review the results every week to see if the number of times was going down so they could be sure their chosen technique of dealing with it was working.
If we haven't put our chosen solution into operation when we find out, we can do the problem-solving technique again and think up new solutions. Or we could look at the solutions we've already got again and see if we think any are better than the one we chose. If we do, maybe we could rate all the pros and cons again now we've got the new information to see which solution seems best this time, and perhaps see if we can think of new pros and cons as well.
If we've already put the solution into operation when we find out the new information, we can think of how the new information affects the choice we made. If it still seems that that was a good choice despite the new thing we've found out, we don't need to worry. But if it means it was a bad choice, though we couldn't have known at the time, we can go through the problem-solving technique again, taking account of the new information.
If the new information we've found out means we're affected quite drastically, like if we chose to buy a house in a certain place because it seemed a good location but we didn't realise we had the neighbours from hell living next door, it's important that we don't spend time making ourselves miserable by blaming ourselves for not knowing that when we moved in, or thinking, "If only things were different", till we feel more and more depressed. It's important to get down as soon as possible to planning what we can do about it.
If they all seem good, that's not a bad problem to have! We can just choose the one we feel like choosing most.
It is important, though, that we did thoroughly think through all the pros and cons as far as we were able to, and that we've been true to ourselves in the way we rated them, and that we found out as much information as we could about each possible pro and con we weren't quite sure about before, before we rated it.
If that happens, it might be because we rated it wrongly for one reason or another. So we could look back at our pros and cons and ask ourselves whether we rated them according to how we really felt about them. It may be that we rated some as less or more significant than they really are. Or we might have rated a pro or con as higher or lower than we really think it should be, because someone else thinks we should, or out of feelings of family duty that conflict with our own wishes, or something else. It's important that we're really happy with how we rate them.
Or we might not have thought of all the pros and cons of a possible solution that we could, so we could try to think of some more.
If we feel close enough to someone to show them what we've done, we could show them how we've rated the pros and cons, to see if they think anything looks surprising at all about the way we've rated things. Something might have seemed a good idea to us at the time, but they might see problems with it that we hadn't thought of, so we can talk it through with them. Or something like that.
It's important to rate things according to what we really want, rather than according to what we think is expected of us, or how we think it'll look to others. In some cases, the consequences of rating things differently than we'd really like to because we're worrying about what other people might think of us if we really do what we'd like to, could be quite drastic.
For instance, the book says a couple with two little children where one was biting the other one several times a day did the problem-solving technique to help them decide what to do. They decided to see a child psychologist, and got some advice on what to do from them. If they'd worried about what other people would think or about what they thought they should be capable of doing by themselves, and made those things a more important consideration than what they really wanted themselves, they might have thought they ought to be able to handle the problem themselves and never got the advice that helped them with the problem.
The book says it's unlikely that we'll find a perfect solution, because a lot of things will have disadvantages somewhere along the line. That's just life. A lot of the decisions people make are compromises. For instance, if someone's buying a house, they might have to go for something smaller than what they really want, because they can't afford anything bigger they've seen. They could go on looking, but it might take a long time, and it's best if they ask themselves first whether it's really worth it, given the time and effort they might have to put into the search. It's like that with a lot of things.
Often, it's best to go with what seems to have the most important advantages and the least important disadvantages. We can sometimes work on planning ways of getting around the disadvantages though, to make them even less significant.
Here's some more of the kind of stuff this book says:
Sometimes, we can have thoughts that pass through our brains so quickly that we're barely aware we've had them, especially since they've sometimes gone on in the background while we're focusing on something else. But they can start us feeling anxious. We might not know why we're feeling anxious again, but it was the thought that started the rush of feeling that put us in an anxious mood.
It happens in the same way that we can smell someone cooking a nice meal, and the instant we've thought it smells nice, almost before the thought's registered with us, we find ourselves thinking about how nice it would be to cook and eat the same thing ourselves, even if we're full because we've recently eaten something nice ourselves.
Or if someone insults us with the same words we heard them insult a known enemy of theirs with some time ago that we'd half forgotten, we might get far more angry with them or anxious about it than need be, because our brain might remember and make a snap association between the two times they said what they said, and think in a flash that they must think we're as bad as their enemy, and think it isn't fair, especially if it's someone we've worked hard for or something.
Thoughts like that can run through our heads so quickly it's difficult to pick them all up, especially since the brain processes information according to what it thinks is important and we only pay attention to some of the things going on around us at any one time. For instance, if we're enjoying a country walk with a friend, we might be so focused on the nice conversation we're having with them and where we're putting our feet that we might just not notice the sounds of cars in the distance, the sounds of birdsong, the sounds of children playing in a nearby park, the sounds of cows lowing in a field within hearing distance, and so on. It's not that we can't hear them, but the brain filters them out so we only focus on what's most important to us. If we listen, we'll be able to hear all those things.
But sometimes, the brain can make snap judgments that are wrong, and treat something as if it's far more important than it is, because of associations it's made with other things from the past. For instance, if someone insults us with the same insults they used on someone we know they hated, it might mean they hate us just as badly, but it might not. But instead of weighing up evidence for which one of those it's likely to mean, thoughts can rush through our heads about how they must hate us to say that, and we can end up feeling really anxious when there's no need. And if we then focus our attention on what to say to them in response, we can simply forget the thoughts that made us think they must hate us, and become absorbed in over-reacting to what they've said. Maybe afterwards, we might be able to work out why we did that, but maybe not, unless we really think about it. If we can work it out, we can then weigh up the evidence for whether they hate us, or whether they probably just came out with what they said because they often insult people and there are only so many insults they're going to be able to choose from, or whether they were a bit drunk when they said it, or what.
It might even be that we know it wasn't them that said it to an enemy but someone else. It might be the first time we've heard them use the insulting words. But we might still have got anxious and over-reacted to what they said, because our brain made the snap association between their words and the words the other person used to their enemy, and before we knew it, we were thinking the words must have the same significance and they must hate us the way the other person hated their enemy. But it might not mean that at all. But only when we have a good think about it later might we realise why what they said upset us so much, and reason to ourselves that they might say that kind of thing to people as habitually as they eat breakfast, just because they're in a bad mood because of something that had nothing to do with us. Or something like that.
Sometimes, certain things will make us far more anxious than we need to be over and over again, because we have beliefs about what they mean that aren't necessarily true. For instance, if someone once worried and worried about whether headaches they had could be a brain tumour, they would have programmed their brain without realising they were doing it to send out anxiety signals whenever they had a headache again, because it would associate headaches with something dangerous. If the headache came on again, that and the anxiety signals the brain was sending out would make the person start worrying and worrying again. That might happen every time they got a headache, even if they'd had tests and been reassured by their doctor several times that they didn't have a brain tumour.
But they could program their brain to react differently so they stopped getting anxious. One way they might be able to do that would be to write lists of reasons they thought the headache might be a brain tumour, and also lists of reasons why it wasn't likely to be one, such as doctors' tests finding nothing wrong, the fact that the headaches had been around for a while and would surely have caused some more major damage long before now if they were caused by a tumour, and so on. If the list of reasons why it wasn't likely to be one was much longer than the list of reasons why it could be, it might go some way to reassuring them, and they could look at it a lot to remind themselves of the things on it. And hopefully the more often they did that, the more their brain would become programmed not to send out the anxiety signals as soon as a headache came on, because if they looked at it a lot, they'd get to know it by heart, so the reasons they weren't likely to have a brain tumour would spring to mind almost as quickly as the worry about having one did whenever they had a headache.
Dwelling on the list for too long might cause more worry though, with all the fears that might come to mind about having a brain tumour despite the odds being very much against it, so as well as looking at the list, a helpful thing to do would be for them to refocus their attention on something interesting that distracts them from the worries, like when the woman mentioned earlier was worried her headaches meant she had a brain tumour, and she worried for hours until she went to pick her kids up from school, and then they were so full of excited chatter that she completely forgot about her worries and her mood completely changed as she got enthusiastic about what they were saying.
Often, all we'll know is that we feel really anxious, or depressed or angry or something, but we won't know why, because the thoughts and associations our brain made with other things that made us feel like that went on so quickly that we forgot them before we'd even really noticed them, just leaving the bad mood in their wake. But we can think back later and might be able to work out what they must have been, or at least what attitudes we have that cause us to start feeling in a bad mood after things happened like the latest thing that made us feel like that.
One thing that can help us work out what associations our brain must have been making with things that have happened to us or things we've really worried about in the past is to think about what feelings like that normally mean people are thinking about, and think about what relation that has to what happened to trigger off our feelings. In other words:
That kind of thing.
Our thoughts will tend to match our feelings. So if we're feeling a particular way, we can ask ourselves what thoughts could have flitted across our minds to make us feel like that.
Also, the intensity of the feelings we had at the time we started feeling unsettled will match the intensity of the thoughts we had about the situation that triggered off our feelings. So that'll give us another clue to what kind of thing we were thinking, at least how disturbing it was.
We can measure the intensity of the feelings we had on a scale from 1 to 100, with 1 being a feeling that isn't bad at all, to 100 being the worst feeling like that that we've ever had in our lives. We can write our estimation down so we don't forget it, maybe in an exercise book we've bought, writing both the number we estimate it to have been, and a description of it that gives us an idea of its strength. For instance, feeling anxious could go from feeling "nervous" to feeling "terrified". Feeling angry could go from feeling "irritated" to feeling "enraged". A 1 on the anger scale might be just a little irritated, and a 100 might be being in the worst bad temper ever.
Sometimes, we might have more than one feeling when we meet a situation. We can estimate the intensity of each, write it down, and try to work out what that must have meant we were thinking.
For instance, if, unexpectedly, we met someone who'd just started a job where we worked, in our department, who was someone we'd known at school, who'd teased and ridiculed us a bit, but who had been our friend before we'd fallen out and that had started to happen, several different feelings might play on our minds. We might feel anxious, angry, sad, curious and surprised. Later, when we're thinking through our reaction, we might think things like:
Anxiety: Well, the anxiety was quite bad. But it's not surprising, given what happened at school. I think I was feeling under threat in a way because I thought it might start happening all over again. I'll rate the anxiety I felt as a 60 on the scale, because my attitude was that any peace of mind I had there could be ruined, and I might have to face difficult times with him being nasty again, but it wasn't as if I thought it was life-threatening or anything, which would have put it nearer to the 100 mark.
Sadness: Well, let's think. Sadness tends to be caused by a loss of some sort, whether that be the loss of a person, the loss of a job, or the loss of happiness or something. Thinking about it, I think I felt sad because I anticipated the loss of my peace of mind, since I didn't have any when he was around at school, and I quickly thought things might go back to the way they were then. That worries me. I think I'll rate my sadness as a 55. It wasn't as if I was very unhappy, but I was certainly quite sad. It'll be a shame if the life I've been living up until now which I've been quite enjoying gets made unhappy by this person.
Anger: I think I must have felt the anger because I remembered what he did to me. He made me angry then, and it made me angry thinking about it. He said all kinds of nasty things about me for no good reason. I think I'll rate the anger as 50. It doesn't make me as angry as it used to. I felt a surge of anger when I met him because of all the memories that flashed through my mind; but it could have been a lot worse. I think the fact that I've made friends since, and know people who are similar to me, makes a difference, because it means I know he won't hurt my confidence as much as he did, because I won't be so quick to believe what he said.
Curiosity: I was still curious about what he's been doing since I met him last. That wasn't as strong as my other feelings though, so I think I'll give it a 25.
Surprise: I know why I was surprised! I didn't expect him to turn up at all. It's been years since I last met him, and I didn't think he was interested in this kind of work. So it is a surprise for him to turn up like that. I'll give my feeling of surprise a 40, because I was quite surprised, though not as surprised as I was anxious and angry and sad.
It'll help if we write things like that down, in full sentences so there's no possibility of us looking back on it later and not understanding what we wrote. We should try to be brief though, so we don't go into hours of depressing rumination about it, although it's best if we try to identify all the different kinds of thoughts we had that caused the feelings.
The idea is that we write down what we think our basic thoughts were, and then think about them later to see if they were realistic, or whether we could do with reprogramming our brains so they think differently and don't trigger off those feelings in us when those things happen again or we meet the same people.
The idea is that if we don't think the thoughts we had are realistic, we can challenge them, perhaps by writing down all the reasons we can think of why our thoughts and feelings weren't realistic but blown out of proportion, or why we can be more optimistic than we thought, so we can hopefully have calmer reactions next time we're in the situation.
Even if our feelings about a situation seem out of proportion to what happened, if we can work out the thoughts we had, they might make a lot more sense.
We can go through a technique like that whenever we notice something has brought on a bad mood of some sort, or whenever we know we reacted strongly to something. When we think we've worked out what thoughts we're likely to have had, we can think about those, to see if we think they're absolutely sensible, or whether we're thinking things are worse than they really are, or whether, if things genuinely do look bad, there isn't something we can do to change things for the better.
We might not be able to work out what thoughts must have flitted across our minds and what associations our brains speedily made between what happened to trigger off our bad feelings and things in the past, until we've described each feeling we have to ourselves and then rated it. Then we can match the strength of it up with any thoughts we can remember having or attitudes we have about the situation we were in when our mood changed that would cause a feeling that strong.
If we haven't got a clue what triggered off our bad mood, and our mood only recently changed for the worse so chances are we'll remember what happened if we think about it, we can ask ourselves questions like:
It can help if we do this technique whenever our mood changes for the worse and we have the time.
We can ask ourselves whether the thoughts we've had are realistic and helpful. For instance, if we got anxious about the new person starting in our department at work because he used to tease and ridicule us at school and we're worried he might do the same at work, we can ask ourselves questions like,
And so on, thinking through our other negative feelings like anger and sadness as well.
We could maybe do a few of these investigations into the thoughts behind our feelings for practice so we get the hang of things, practising first of all with things that happened recently that were only minor.
If we can think of some of the thoughts we had but can't understand how they could have led to the feelings we had, we can ask ourselves questions to find out more about the thoughts we had, like maybe:
We might discover a whole new train of thought we'd forgotten about. For instance, if we noticed we'd had a strong feeling of disappointment after we met our old schoolmate who was going to work in the same department at our work, we might not be able to work out why at first. But if we remember getting it after starting to worry that we might have arguments with them because of what they might say to us, we might remember that our thoughts went something like:
What if I can't concentrate so well on my work because he's always finding fault with me?
What if he looks hard for things I do wrong and reports every little error to the boss?
What if the boss decides I'm incompetent and sacks me? I used to like this job, so I'll be disappointed to leave.
If we realise those were the types of thoughts that flitted through our minds, we can perhaps challenge them by thinking, and writing down something like,
It may be that there's an even bigger fear lurking behind our feelings that we don't recognise because it usually stays in our subconscious. But if it's causing us anxiety, it needs to be challenged so we can feel calmer about it. So if we still don't feel as if the explanations for our feelings we've come up with so far are enough to explain their intensity, we can delve further.
So, for instance, if we thought we were anxious because we thought there might be difficulties ahead if the new person at work started having a go at us, but we felt far more anxious than we'd expect to feel if that was the only thing the matter, we could ask ourselves questions that might uncover deeper worries, like:
It's important that we don't just let ourselves get absorbed in more and more worrying rumination, but that we just try to answer a question and move on.
It might turn out that we realise that what's causing us most of the anxiety is a fear that we really are inadequate, and that we won't be able to cope with being ridiculed, because it'll just confirm to us what we already fear, and then our confidence will be damaged and we don't think we'll be able to do the job any more, so we'll lose the job, and might not be able to impress employers enough to get a new one.
If we realise we're being bothered by that kind of thinking, we can sit down and challenge it. We can take the fears one by one, and think of all the reasons why they're unlikely to come true, or if they did, why it wouldn't be as catastrophic as we think.
Some people find it helpful to pretend to be a lawyer or best friend defending them. They first act as themselves voicing a bad opinion they have about themselves or a worry about something bad happening, and then, perhaps sitting in another chair, they pretend to be their lawyer or best friend stating all the reasons why they're not as bad as they think, and listing things in the past to show they've proved they can cope better than they think.
It's important not to let the anxiety build up, because the more anxious a person is, the more difficult it is to think clearly, and the more exaggerated thoughts of catastrophe people get absorbed in, that they can see are improbable when they're calmer.
So if we feel ourselves getting anxious during the sessions, it's as well to take time out and do a relaxation technique like slow steady breathing for a few minutes or longer, perhaps with soothing music in the background, to unwind, before we start again.
But we shouldn't use that as a way of avoiding getting down to thinking of all the evidence against the horrible thoughts that are just a nuisance because they keep making us anxious over and over again. Once we've sorted them out and proved to ourselves that they're unrealistic, if they are, then they'll probably stop making us anxious so much. And the more often we think through the reasons why they're unrealistic, the less they'll probably make us anxious, so we'll be glad we bothered in the end.
Since worrying thoughts can run away with us and get more and more exaggerated till we're worrying about things that are just not likely to happen at all really, it's best to stop them in their tracks. If some thoughts repeat over and over again in our minds regularly, always making us more and more anxious, It can calm our anxiety if we take each one in turn and ask ourselves how true it really is. It's easy when we're anxious to assume our thoughts are true when they're really quite improbable.
Actually, I think it's easy to do that any time really. People probably make assumptions about things all the time, and sometimes they're right, and sometimes they're wrong. I remember I was in someone's house once with a group of other people, and they offered us some cakes and a cup of tea each. When we'd finished, they asked if anyone wanted some more. I thought they were saying it to be nice; but when no one said yes, they said they were glad. I asked them why they'd asked if we wanted some more if they didn't really want to give us any. They said that's just the way of the world. A lot of people probably offer things because it's the polite thing to do, rather than because they want to be nice. I've probably done that myself.
That's just one little example of the way that things we assume are true sometimes aren't.
In the same way, when we're anxious, we can assume things are at least highly likely when they're actually far less likely than we think. For instance, people who've got a headache can feel sure they must have a brain tumour, even when they've had lots of tests that have come back clear. Or someone who is asked to go and have a word with the boss might feel sure they're going to lose their job over a mistake they made earlier, when the boss might want to speak to them about something totally different; or if it is the mistake he wants to speak to them about, it might in reality have been a trivial mistake that no one would fire someone over.
So one way to lessen anxiety is to resolve to accept just the facts as true, and not other things that might really just be speculation. We can make efforts to get more facts where we don't know enough for our liking; and we can help ourselves focus on just the facts.
It's easy to think that if we're anxious, it means there must be something wrong. But this book says things don't work like that. Feelings are like computer programmes - if programs were written with faulty information, then they'll give us faulty data; and if feelings came on in the first place because of thoughts we had that were mistaken, the feelings won't be telling us something accurate either. It's easy to feel as if we have no control over our feelings so we have to just put up with what they do to us. But actually, it's better to think of feelings as being like documents we've written on the computer, that can give us valuable information sometimes, but that we have the power to control and edit, so we're not following their lead but can change them once we know how, if we decide there's something wrong with them.
The structure in the brain that sets off feelings like anxiety is called the amygdala, and is a primitive little thing that reacts sometimes dramatically to things it's learned to see as signs of danger, but it doesn't have the capacity to think things through itself to decide whether we really are in danger, and it reacts before the rest of the brain has time to think. It serves a good purpose sometimes. It could save our lives if we were crossing a road and a car came down the road really fast and it set off the anxiety signals that gave us a sense of urgency and the energy to run quickly to the other side. In a situation like that, we'd have to just act straightaway; we wouldn't have time to think things through, and in fact to do so first would slow us down so much that it would be far too dangerous.
But the amygdala does send out anxiety signals when it's learned to see danger when sometimes there isn't any, like when we start worrying that we're going to make a mess of something that isn't really all that important. It knows we've had anxious thoughts about that kind of thing before, so it thinks there must be a problem and sends out anxiety signals to alert us to it. It sends out the anxiety signals before we've had time to think things through, so we can feel really anxious before we've worked out that we don't need to feel anxious about it. And when we're in that state, with all the anxiety signals flowing around our brains, it's more difficult to see things as they really are and realise there's nothing to worry about.
So we need to train the amygdala in our brain to realise that a lot of things it makes us anxious about aren't really dangerous after all. We can do that. There are quite a few ways of doing it. Here's one way:
When we find ourselves thinking things that make us anxious, sometimes it can calm us down if we stop ourselves in our tracks and think through how realistic what we're worrying about is, like a lawyer would examine a case.
Or after we've had a worry session, we can think about the things we typically get anxious about and do the same, so next time we get anxious, hopefully we'll remember them and be able to calm ourselves down a bit by thinking them through.
There are several things we can think through when we're examining our thoughts to decide how realistic they really are, like:
The evidence we think up as to how realistic our thoughts are has to be strong enough to convince a jury, or we should dismiss it.
So for instance, the book mentions a woman whose husband was twenty minutes late home from work, and she got really worried and realised she was thinking he must have had an accident. She'd normally get more and more anxious worrying about what would happen if he had, but she put the thought challenging techniques she'd learned into practice and managed to calm down.
So she might have thought:
We could also think of the evidence for what we're worried about. If the only thing a person knows is that her husband is twenty minutes late from work, for example, she won't have any evidence at all that he's had an accident.
It's easy when we're worrying to think things are much more likely to happen than they really are. If we think back over all the things we've worried would happen in our lives, or at least the ones we can remember, and ask ourselves how many actually did, most of us could probably say that hardly any of them have. So when we worry, it could be worth thinking of the old saying, My life has been full of troubles, most of which have never happened.
Another thing we could do is to try to work out what the odds are that it'll really happen. I mean, if someone's husband has been driving home from work for ten years and every time they've been late, it's been because of a harmless reason, it naturally won't be impossible that they've had an accident, but the odds will be small. We might even be able to roughly calculate the odds, perhaps by thinking something like,
"He's probably late home around once every two weeks; and all but a few of those times, it's been because he's left work late. So that's most likely to be what's happened."
Also, if that was us worrying, we might calm ourselves by reasoning things through in more depth like:
We could challenge every anxious thought we have like that.
The more we worry, the less clearly we can think, because the more emotional signals are in the brain, the more it blocks the intelligent part of the brain from functioning. Relaxing can help it function again. But one thing we can take note of is that the more emotional we get, the more all kinds of unlikely things seem possible, because we're not thinking about them logically. There are quite a few errors in thinking we can make when we feel like that, and it's worth knowing what they are, so we can hopefully spot them as soon as we begin to make them, and realise that what we're worrying about isn't that likely really.
Here are some of the thinking errors we can make, that the book points out:
Sometimes, we might recognise what type of thinking we're doing, so that'll be one way of calming ourselves down, if we realise that our worries don't need to be taken as seriously as we thought. If we recognise what error in thinking we've made, we could give it its label if we remember what it was called.
So as well as asking ourselves questions about what the chances really are that what we're worrying about has happened, like a lawyer might, and that kind of thing, we can ask ourselves if there's anything exaggerated about our thoughts in themselves.
When we challenge our thoughts like a lawyer asking whether there's any evidence for them, we could write down our challenges to our worrying thoughts sometimes, since that might help to clarify things in our minds, and help us remember them so we can read them again at a later date, perhaps next time we start worrying about the same thing.
Or if we've just got anxious feelings that have come on all of a sudden without us knowing why, as long as it's practical for us to do so, we can think back, to try and work out what sparked off our anxious feelings, since it might have been something that doesn't need to make us feel anxious really, but our brain's so used to feeling anxious when that kind of thing happens that it sends out the anxiety signals automatically when it does, before we have time to think.
If we think that's happened, realising that will calm us down a bit, since at least we'll probably know it means there's nothing to be as anxious about as we thought.
And if we can work out what's wrong with what we're thinking, we can start thinking more realistic thoughts, which again will help to calm us down.
If challenging our thoughts doesn't calm us down that much, because we still think that what we're worrying about might happen or be happening anyway, we can ask ourselves whether it's really a good use of our time to worry about it. If we can go and get on with something else, it'll hopefully drive worries out of our minds, and we can wait till we've got more evidence for or against our worries before we try challenging them again.
The more quickly we can start challenging our worried thoughts after they come on the better, since the less anxious we are when we do it, the more clearly we'll be able to think. So we shouldn't wait for the worries to get worse and worse till we're really anxious before we do if we can help it, but it's best to challenge them even if we feel just a bit of anxiety. The more often we do, the better we'll probably get at stopping our anxious thoughts in their tracks. It'll take a bit of time before we get really good at it, but we'll get better and better with practise.
Sometimes, anxious people in particular can jump to the worst possible conclusions about things, and only see the negative aspects of them, when in reality, things might be different to the way we think they are.
So if we catch ourselves thinking something negative, it can sometimes help if we rethink it, trying to think of the positive aspects, or thinking up a few alternative ways of looking at it. It's called reframing. It doesn't mean we try to convince ourselves that things are less of a problem than they are, but it means we look at whether we could be missing something that could change our attitude.
So, for example, we might think, "I wish those people weren't coming to visit. It'll tire me out having to tidy the whole house", and we could reflect on it and come up with a different perspective that goes, "It'll be fun having them here. I don't need to tidy the whole house, and anyway, they've seen this place in a mess, so they won't mind if it isn't perfect, so I really don't need to get stressed".
Or we might think wearily, "I really ought to do more exercise", and we could try to look at that in an alternative way and think, "I'll try to think of an exercise that's fun to do so I'll want to do it".
Some more examples could be:
I've never had a relationship that works!
I haven't found the person who's truly right for me yet.
I get anxious in supermarkets.
Till now, I've been anxious in supermarkets.
I'll never get over being rejected by my partner.
I'm really hurting at the moment.
There's no way out of this!
So far, I haven't found the best way of dealing with it.
Thinking of things in new ways can refocus our brain away from a hopeless way of looking at things to one where we see new possibilities for changing things.
Listen, if you start worrying about the people in the stands, before too long you're up in the stands with them.
Worries go down better with soup than without.
Once we've decided a worry isn't worth having, then one way to stop having it for the time being is just to refocus our minds on something else, maybe just re-applying our attention to what we were doing before the worry intruded into our minds, if it's absorbing enough to have a chance of keeping it out for a while.
If it isn't absorbing enough, there might be something we can do to get more stimulation, like putting music on or a programme on the radio where people are talking, or something like that. If we concentrate on things like that, we'll hopefully be distracted from our worries so we forget about them for a while.
Or we can draw our thoughts away from our worries and focus them on thinking about something else, maybe like something practical we've got to do that day, perhaps, or whatever we find it useful to think about.
It might be tempting to worry for a bit longer, if we perhaps think that something good might come out of it in the end, like a solution to our problem. But once we fully recognise that worry isn't by any means the best way of going about things but is just a bad habit really, we can come around to the opinion that there are much better ways of trying to find solutions, and worry's just ruining our quality of life. So to think we'll just have a bit more worrying time when we catch ourselves worrying is just encouraging the habit not to go away really. If we do something to get the worry out of our minds as soon as we catch ourselves having it, the sooner we'll break the habit, if we do something every time we catch ourselves.
It might take some practice till we can distract ourselves so well that worrying thoughts stop intruding into our minds again once we've started, but it should get easier with practice, since we'll be forming a new habit - the habit of letting go of worries.
Sometimes it can be easier for us to take our minds off our worries and focus them on something else if we have a little prompt we can bring to mind. It's easier to stop doing something when we can bring ourselves up short with a friendly bit of discipline than it is if we haven't got anything except will power to help us change direction, since it might well be more difficult for us to discipline ourselves to stop if there's no concrete ending to what we've been doing, to help us resolve to change the direction of our thinking. So we could train ourselves to stop our worrying thoughts by thinking something like,
"I know these thoughts aren't doing me any good really", or "I've already analysed this worry, and I decided there was a more likely explanation for what was going on than what I worried had happened", or, "Well, I'll just have to wait and see!" Or something like that.
Then, we go straight to refocusing our attention on the thing we've decided to use to distract ourselves from our worries.
Some people find it easier to think of an image of something rather than words. For instance, people could imagine their thoughts as traffic in a traffic jam, and then imagine the traffic moving again and going away.
It can be more difficult to distract ourselves from our worries at night, when we're not doing anything we can easily refocus our attention on because we're just trying to get to sleep. It can help if we think of something to occupy our minds, something not too exciting that might stop us sleeping, but interesting enough that we want to keep thinking about it so we don't get bored enough for worries to start drifting into our minds because we can't concentrate on it.
It could be a fantasy about something nice, like planning how we'd like to redecorate the house if we could do whatever we wanted and didn't have to worry about the cost, or what we'd like to do at college if we went, or what hobbies we'd take up if we could, or anything that gives us pleasant, reasonably interesting but not exciting thoughts.
If worries do creep into our minds, we can just gently draw our minds back to thinking about the pleasant thing we chose to think about.
It might take a bit of practice till we're good at keeping worries out of our minds, but it's worth doing.
Something that can help is if we do that progressive muscular relaxation thing, where we tense groups of muscles and relax them in turn. If we focus our attention on how our muscles are feeling as they slowly relax all the time, it can be easier than trying to think of new things. Worries are still bound to come to our minds, but we can gently refocus our attention on the way our muscles are feeling as they tense and relax.
One thing we can do to practice refocusing our attention is if we have music on in the background or something else, and try ignoring it, giving all our attention to our muscle relaxation, or to something else we're doing or thinking.
Or music might help increase our enjoyment and so help keep worries away.
Or we could do other things to practice focusing attention on one particular thing. For example, when we go down the street during the day, we could focus on counting all the cars of a particular colour that go by in a minute or something.
It isn't about banishing thoughts, as if it's dangerous to think them. We should acknowledge that the things are worrying us, but try not to focus on them. Actually, if we stop our minds whirring for a minute and just think to ourselves the specific thought, "I'm worrying about ... (whatever it is)", sometimes that can help people feel a bit more calm. Instead of getting absorbed in the worry, it'll mean thinking about it in a more detached way, as if we're observing it rather than getting involved in it.
A lot of what makes us anxious is the uncertainty of not being able to know whether what we're worried about will happen. But it's worth considering that in the parts of our lives where we don't worry, we can tolerate uncertainty. For instance, a lot of people who worry about dying of a heart attack at a young age don't think twice about jumping in their cars and driving, even though, although the chance of dying in a car accident is not very high at all, the chances of it are actually a lot higher than most of them having a heart attack. Yet that doesn't bother them.
So we can consider that if we're not bothered about things that are actually greater risks, we could take the same attitude to the things we worry about.
Also, the most realistic way to respond to a lot of worries is, "I'll just have to wait and see if it happens". Since we can't make it any less likely to happen by worrying, and chances are that if it does, things we hadn't anticipated will happen so we'll have to wait till then to do most of our planning for it anyway, and chances are that it won't happen at all, we may as well just wait and see, instead of ruining our lives by worrying when there might well be no need. It might be hard to give up the worry because we might think that if we keep worrying, we might eventually be able to resolve the situation and be relieved. But it's more usual for worry to just make us feel worse and worse.
Sometimes, we might stop worrying, only for worrying thoughts to come into our minds again only a few minutes later, and they might keep coming back. But any habit that's hard to break will keep bothering us till we do break it. But if we keep patiently just refocusing our attention on something else every time a worry comes into our minds, then it'll probably start disappearing soon, possibly within days.
With practice over the weeks, we'll get better and better at controlling and getting rid of our worries. But a worry still might come back sometimes that we hadn't anticipated. We don't need to worry that we're going back to the way we used to be when we worried all the time though, because once we know strategies for dealing with it, we know we'll be able to get rid of it before it gets really bad.
This book says it's very common for people with anxiety to have problems with sleep, either with getting to sleep because of all the worry keeping our minds too active, or with falling asleep quickly but waking up a lot, or with not being refreshed by the sleep so we wake up tired in the morning.
If we cut down the amount of anxiety we have during the day, we'll be more relaxed when we go to bed and so in a more fit state to get a good night's sleep. If we're getting over the habit of worrying, so we haven't thought of new things to worry about during the day, we won't have so much to worry about at night that'll keep us awake. So our sleep will likely automatically improve.
Also, we can do relaxation techniques to calm down, and exercise to work off nervous energy, although it's best not to exercise too soon before we go to bed, since it'll make us feel more lively. It's recommended that we don't do strenuous exercise for a couple of hours before bedtime. Doing exercise earlier in the day can help though.
The book says it's been found that the body clock's set by what time we get up in the morning rather than by what time we go to bed, so it can help if people get up at the same time each day, at least until the insomnia's gone. It says if we stay in bed a lot later one morning, going to bed at the same time as usual won't be worthwhile because we won't be tired enough to get to sleep yet, because we won't have been up for the same number of hours as usual. But then waiting to go to bed till we've stayed up for the normal amount of hours we usually would would just throw out our routines, and mean we had less hours to sleep that night. That's why it's best to get up at the same time every morning.
And it's worth going to bed at the same time of night, but also preferably at a time when we begin to feel sleepy, so we have that momentum to help us get to sleep, though not too early.
Going to bed early probably won't be worthwhile, because if we stay in bed for longer than the amount of hours of sleep we need, we're probably bound to frustrate ourselves by being awake for some of it. And then if we start worrying about not being able to get to sleep, that'll keep us awake for longer.
It's best not to eat a heavy meal too near bedtime, and it's best not to take caffeine or other stimulants too near bedtime either. In fact, the book recommends people don't eat a heavy meal in the couple of hours before bedtime, and that people with insomnia don't have anything with caffeine in it any later than mid afternoon!
It says it's easiest to get to sleep if people have the room cool, dark and quiet, and even that people are more likely to get nightmares if they're too warm. Maybe that's because being too warm stops them sleeping so deeply.
So people could get thick curtains if they're being disturbed by lights outside.
It says people shouldn't worry too much about getting a perfect environment for sleep though. For instance, not all noise will disturb sleep.
The book says experts now think that bed should be kept for the things it's meant for. Watching television, reading, doing paperwork, worrying, arguing and other daytime things will stimulate us and program our brains to be more awake than we should be. If we think of bed as a special place for things we specially associate with bed, it can help. A lot of people don't have a problem with sleep after they've watched the television or something, but for anyone with sleep difficulties, it might be part of what's causing the problem.
If the sleep difficulties go away, it might be worth experimenting with gradually introducing things like watching television again to see what happens, for people who miss it.
Another way of getting the brain to associate bed with sleep is getting up if we've been restlessly awake for twenty minutes or more, to do something boring that could well make us feel sleepy, and then when we feel sleepy again, going to bed. If we still can't get to sleep, it's worth getting up again after about twenty minutes and doing something boring again, either that or something so complicated it gives us brainache, till we feel sleepy, and then going to bed again. That way, the brain will hopefully start to associate bed with going to sleep rather than with staying restlessly awake, so it'll be a bit like programming it to expect that to happen, instead of it expecting us to stay awake.
A lot of people recommend we spend the last hour before we go to bed deliberately doing something to unwind and relax, to get our brains in the mood for sleep. It doesn't have to be for an hour, but that can be a good amount of time. So we don't do any work, but just something pleasurable that helps us relax.
The book says people with anxiety can often think not getting enough sleep will be disastrous, thinking it will be impossible to cope after a bad night's sleep, or that they'll be really anxious the next day if they don't get any sleep, or they'll fall ill. But it says you can go for days without sleep and not suffer any serious effects. You might get shaky and bad at concentrating and make more mistakes than usual, but lack of sleep in moderation isn't a health hazard.
I don't do these things.
But this book says a lot of people with anxiety problems think it's so important to get a good night's sleep that they want things done in a very precise way; but that defeats the object really, because they get so anxious about trying to make sure conditions are perfect that their anxiety stops them falling asleep.
An example of a sleep ritual, as the book calls them, includes going outside and all around the house listening for any sources of noise before going to bed.
Actually, I know it's possible to sleep through quite a lot of noise, because I've fallen asleep in front of television programmes I wanted to watch lots of times. Annoying!
It says that after some people go around checking for possible sources of noise, they have very strict routines involving bedtime drinks, brushing teeth, washing and that kind of thing. It says some women even forbid their husbands to come to bed till they're asleep in case they keep them awake with their snoring.
Well, I can understand that!
The book says there are a few problems people might have adjusting to new sleeping routines, but it suggests a few solutions:
It says for people with problems sleeping through their alarm a lot and so waking up late, if it's not essential that they get up when their alarm's set, although it is desirable, they could set it later, and then gradually set it earlier and earlier till it's set to go off at the time they want it to. Maybe the time could be set earlier by five minutes at a time even.
Or people could try staying up for one whole night before a day when they won't be driving or using heavy machinery or anything, and then go to bed at the time they'd like to that day, to see if they can get up at the normal time from then on.
It says that for people who spend hours awake in bed every night, one thing that can work is reducing the amount of time they spend in bed to about the time they'd normally spend asleep. If they reckon they only spend about five hours asleep, they could only spend that amount of time in bed, to try to re-train the brain to realise that it needs to be asleep during the time in bed. Sleep deprivation will soon make the brain want more sleep in bed, so people can start gradually increasing the length of time they spend in bed, perhaps by half an hour, or even just ten minutes each night.
The book doesn't give any tips on what we can do if we keep falling asleep during the day because of all this!
The book says that sleeping tablets aren't good for you, so it's better not to be on them; but anyone on sleeping tablets might be better off reducing them gradually rather than coming off them all at once, since that can cause insomnia worse than they had before for a few days. So taking half a tablet to start with before cutting them out altogether might be better, or not taking them every day but only a couple of times a week.
I've got another book here on getting rid of anxiety. It's called Mastering Anxiety. It's about lots of different anxiety problems, not just generalised anxiety disorder. But it says quite a lot of things that seem relevant.
One of the things it says is that laughter is like a tranquilliser without side effects. It's a bit like that old saying, Laughter is the best medicine. The book says laughter reduces stress, and is even like good exercise, getting the lungs and heart working.
So it recommends we find things to do in life that'll give us a good laugh.
It recommends we could buy a joke book, and that we find funny stories to smile at. It also suggests we try to think of as many of the funniest things that have ever happened to us as we can, and write them down so we can remind ourselves of them in future when we feel anxious, and they might help relax us.
It says funny experiences from the past can sometimes be things we didn't think were funny at all at the time, like accidentally getting ourselves locked out of the house without our keys, or doing our best to tidy the house for a visit from a special friend, only to drop a plant pot full of earth all over the carpet the minute before they arrived.
It says that apart from memories like that giving us a laugh, they can make us reflect that some things we considered catastrophes at the time can't have been that bad at all really if we can laugh at them now, and that might lead us to think that some of the things we really worry about, we could probably cope with quite well if they happened really, and it might not be too long before we realised they weren't that bad at all, not nearly as bad as we thought they would be.
With some memories that don't seem funny, like being criticized in front of everyone by a boss or something, we might be able to get a laugh out of them if we replay them in our minds, imagining the main characters were cartoon characters, or that the one antagonising us had his head covered in marzipan and icing, or something.
Another thing it suggests we do is to look for things that make us smile or laugh when we're out and about, such as dogs playing in the park. Or we could find funny books or films we'll enjoy.
The book says that the benefits of that go beyond just making us laugh. While we're looking out for things to laugh about, we won't be working ourselves up with worry.
It's interesting that this new book says that it's been discovered through decades of research that everyone has several emotional needs, and to be free from anxiety, it's important that we have them fulfilled, at least to a large extent.
It suggests we have a really good think to see if the emotional needs it says we have are being fulfilled, and then if they're not, it suggests things we can start to do about it.
The book says the emotional needs we have include:
The book asks us to think about when our anxiety problems started, in case that could give us a clue to what caused them.
For instance, someone who got picked on by a teacher might feel particularly anxious and insecure when they get criticized, because the teacher's criticism made them feel inadequate, and they keep getting the old feeling back whenever anyone else criticises them. So thinking through changes in their attitude to criticism will be something to focus on in particular; and then when they feel awkward when they get criticized, they'll know that not all the feelings are happening because of what the other person's saying, but some are just remnants of the past when a horrid teacher said nasty things that made them feel they were inadequate. Since they'll know the teacher was just being horrid so they didn't need to feel as bad as they did, and also that they'll have been bound to have got more competent over the years, they'll know they don't really need to be bothered by their uncomfortable feelings so much.
But the book says it doesn't matter if we can't think of what triggered the anxiety off. After all, some people say they think they've always been anxious.
It asks a lot of questions, and advises we carefully think through them to help us decide what areas of our lives aren't going right and could do with improving.
It says that if we're feeling emotional, we might feel as if nothing's going right in our lives at all, but that's unlikely, since if nothing was going right in our lives, we wouldn't even be able to concentrate on reading this at all or even have the opportunity to read it.
It says we might discover through thinking through the questions that more things are going right for us than we thought, and that perhaps it's just one thing that's going badly wrong. Or maybe several things aren't as good as they could be. Or maybe our anxiety's the thing getting in the way of our needs being met nowadays, because it's become a habit, whereas it was originally triggered by needs not being met; so once we've got rid of it, we can get them met more easily, so it's less likely to come back again. If it does, we can look through the questions again and ask ourselves what needs have stopped being met in our lives, and plan how to meet them better.
Or the anxiety might be making us think things are far worse than they really are, and when we realise we've got more going for us than we thought because we can answer quite a lot of the questions in a positive way, that in itself might help to calm us down.
But the questions might show up areas of our lives where things are badly wrong, and then we can get straight down to planning how we can change things.
They might also show us if we're trying to get needs met in unhealthy ways and need to do alternative things to get them met, or balance one need with another so we can get them both met to some extent, rather than being desperate to get one need met and going over-the-top in our efforts to get it met, neglecting another one in the process.
Though it would be nice to aim to change things so we're getting all our needs met so we could one day answer all the questions in a positive way, we don't have to answer in a positive way to all the questions for us to still be having a decent quality of life. But if we answer several of them negatively, then it might seriously mean we have to work on improving things. If we answer over half of them negatively, we Definitely will need to work on improving things soon.
If we can't answer some of them in a positive way, it might be tempting to get depressed about it, thinking how much we're missing out on. But that would be a shame, because the purpose of the questions is that at the end, when we've perhaps got a clearer idea of what's wrong in our lives, we plan how we can gradually work towards improving things. And there might be things it says we need but that we think we can do without for the time being anyway.
Here are a lot of the questions it asks:
If we do, could it be of an unwelcome type that saps our resources? For example:
That basically means:
If we don't have a close friend or partner we're close to, do we at least have friends or relatives we can be ourselves with and who will support us?
Have people shown us they appreciate us? For instance:
The book says we all need to feel needed, or that we can do something of value for other people.
It says we also need to do activities we find meaningful in other ways; and also that it helps if we have some philosophy of life that helps us believe life is meaningful in itself. It asks:
As well as anything else, feeling part of something bigger than ourselves that we firmly believe in the benefits of can help us feel grounded in something and so not so anxious.
When we've got a clearer understanding of what we need to do more of so we don't have so many things missing from our lives, and of what we need to do less of so we can get a more healthy balance of things, we can set little goals for ourselves, planning how we can change things little by little, till life's a lot better.
It would be too ambitious to try to change too much at once, since if we didn't manage it, we'd get discouraged and might give up trying to change things altogether. But if we plan little changes in any one go that we feel fairly confident we can achieve, we can do more and more, building up our confidence and quality of life as we go.
If we think of something big we want to achieve, we can then think of little steps towards it we could take. It's the same principle that if we wanted to get fit, we wouldn't have a hope of achieving that in one go, but we could think of little things we could do to make it more and more possible, gradually working up to it.
The book gives us advice on pitfalls to avoid and other things to bear in mind when we're deciding how to change things:
It's important to be specific about what we want to change, so we have some starting point for deciding what to do.
For instance, it wouldn't be much good to have a goal of, "I want my working environment to be more relaxed", because that wouldn't lead on to any ideas about what we could do to aim for that, until we were more specific about what the problem that needed changing was.
So if we can only think of goals that sound vague like, "I'd like my working environment to be more relaxed", we could ask ourselves, "If it was more relaxed, exactly what things would be different about it?"
And then when we've worked out what specific things would need to change, we could ask ourselves what we could do to try to influence things to change in the direction we'd like them to go in.
We obviously can't aim to do things that would be impossible for us, like getting back with an old partner who got into a new relationship and had a new baby with his new partner. So our goals can't be wishful thinking, but they have to be things we know we could actually do with a bit of planning.
It's easy to get so absorbed in our anxiety that we worry far too much about how things will affect us, and it ruins our enjoyment of other people or our surroundings. So the book says we could deliberately choose little goals that will get us more involved in other things or with other people, like perhaps:
Whatever we do, the things we do will have to be things we quite like doing and that don't put too much pressure on us. Otherwise, they might make us feel worse. So it's important that we choose what to do as carefully as we can, and if we find we've made the wrong decision, to back out and try something else.
Little things can be a start. But they can lead onto bigger things.
I've just read a success story about someone who went to a psychotherapist because her life was a mess and she didn't feel as if she had the confidence to change it. She really wanted a new job, because she was unhappy where she was, partly because she thought her boss was unreasonable and insensitive. But she didn't feel as if she had the courage to go for a new one. But things changed for her.
The psychotherapist asked her to imagine how her life would be if things were going well. She asked her to think about exactly what would be different, starting from when she woke up in the morning, to last thing at night.
The woman said she thought the first sign that things were suddenly going well in her life would be that she'd go and wake her young daughter up in a better mood, and kiss her and be more playful with her. She said she already did that sometimes.
The psychotherapist asked her if she could behave in the way she'd behave if the differences in her life she mentioned were already happening during the following week, getting up early, waking her daughter up playfully, and having a go on her exercise bike.
The woman thought that would be easy, especially since she already woke her daughter up playfully sometimes, and she asked whether in that case, perhaps she ought to make more changes in her life. But the psychotherapist advised her not to, so she wouldn't take on too much and be discouraged if she couldn't manage it.
Once she managed the first things she tried all week though, the woman did go on to trying more things, like going on a diet, breaking that down into small steps so as not to become overwhelmed with the task and discouraged. For instance, one of the small tasks she chose to do first was to find out where Weight Watchers held their meetings, since she'd found them helpful before and decided to try them again. The next task was to go to a meeting.
She started losing weight, and she found that waking her daughter up playfully put her daughter in a good mood which made her own mood better, and even later in the day, they were still feeling like being more playful with each other, telling each other jokes and being happier.
She started doing more and more things over the weeks that improved her life, till she had more energy and was more confident, and decided she could face looking for a new job, even if that meant getting some rejection letters. It took longer than she expected, but because she was more confident than she had been, she carried on looking, and eventually she got a better job where she was more respected.
The psychotherapist said that people don't have to stick to making really small changes if we want to do a bigger one, as long as it's realistic and not so daunting we might not manage it. But we should remember to take the changes bit by bit.
If we'd like to achieve something but don't think we've got the confidence, one thing that can help is if we first relax ourselves so we're not feeling anxious, and then we try to imagine ourselves doing what we'd like to achieve, closing our eyes and imagining going through it as vividly as we can, imagining the feelings of enjoyment or fulfilment we're getting from it, or maybe imagining being a bit nervous at first but then relaxing and having a good time, or getting what we wanted to do done satisfactorily.
Doing that a few times might give us more confidence, or make us more keen to try it.
So we start off by doing those relaxation techniques to get us in the mood ...
Oh yes, I remember them!
And then we imagine doing something we want to do and enjoying it and doing it well.
I think I'll try all of this.
This article is written slightly differently from most articles. All the information in most of the articles in this series is written as if by someone finding out a lot of helpful information for the first time, just learning about it. That person themselves isn't real; they're just a representative of a lot of others suffering the same thing. Any little anecdotes they tell about their personal lives or those of people they know almost always have really happened though, usually either to the author or to someone else known to the author. The article comes with a very short story about them to set the scene, and presents all the self-help information as if it's what they're finding out and what they think of it.
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Debbie has been diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder. She worries and worries about things for the vast majority of the day. She's constantly anxious that all kinds of bad things might happen in the future. Her worry stops her concentrating properly on things. She finds it difficult to think clearly sometimes. And she often finds it difficult to sleep. She suffers headaches, and aches and pains in her muscles. She often feels weary, and little things can irritate her, so she snaps at people around her, and then worries that they might not like her any more if she carries on.
She's unhappy with her doctor, since it seemed he just wanted to put her on antidepressants and she didn't want to go on drugs, and didn't think she was that depressed anyway. The doctor said antidepressants work for anxiety problems as well. But she wanted to know some psychological strategies for getting over her generalized anxiety disorder. She at least wanted to try some to see if she could get over it without going on antidepressants. But the doctor didn't know of any.
But then she finds a self-help book and starts to feel more hopeful. In the introduction, it does say it contains strategies for getting over severe worry, so she reads on.
In the coming weeks, she finds the information makes a difference, and her life improves.