Updated: Dec 22, 2021
In the English language we use the words anxiety and worry interchangeably, and that that causes a lot of confusion. Mainly because anxiety is an emotion that we can feel in times of threat, and worry is an action. It is a process of thinking that comes about because we are unsure whether we are in danger and if we are, where that threat is coming from. This gives rise to a different set of bodily sensations, that can last a lot longer than in anxiety (see Do You Know the Difference Between Anxiety and Worry?).
Today I wanted to explain why challenging worry never works.
The reason I want to do this is two-fold.
Firstly, it is commonplace for our friends, relatives, and even some therapists and coaches, to encourage us to ‘try to think more rationally’.
They may ask questions such as ‘What is the worst that can happen?’ ‘Is it going to matter in five years’ time?’ ‘What would a friend say?’ ‘If you weren’t so anxious, would you be thinking like that?’ Which all sound like they are offering reasonable helpful perspectives.
And if dealing with anxiety, these could be very useful because as we have all experienced, when anxious, our ability to think rationally is thwarted.
This is due to the mind engaging the emotional centre (the Limbic System consisting of the Hippocampus, Thalamus, Hypothalamus, Amygdala, and Pituitary Gland). And disengaging the Pre-frontal Cortex where we do our rational thinking, planning, and organising.
But more than that, the Pre-frontal Cortex is also responsible for emotional regulation, insight, empathy, response flexibility, fear modulation, and body regulation. So, trying to re-activate the rational mind through questioning can sometimes be helpful.
The second reason I want to address the futile nature of challenging worry is that worry is so pervasive and so damaging it can make life feel so much easier just by understanding how best to manage it.
We all worry at times. It can feel natural. But even so, it is not necessary. It serves no useful purpose. I challenge you now to offer me one objective that is beneficial to an individual.
I guarantee you won’t find one.
We were not specifically enabled to worry through evolution. Worry is a by-product of the ability to imagine several different scenarios in the future simultaneously. Humans possess this skill to enable survival. The ability to plan and anticipate have served us well. But, if this causes a state of uncertainty and we get stuck in the ‘Get Set’ position once on our marks, then this leads to the sometimes-painful physical sensations of tension, of headaches, gastrointestinal symptoms, poor sleep, and restlessness.
And of course, the thoughts turn into a train of ‘What ifs’ and ‘Yeah buts’ that we recognise as Worry.
So, to tackle worry by challenging the thoughts individually is like trying to pop bubbles from a children’s bubble machine. You may pop one or two, but for each you pop, another three or four are released in a constant stream of ‘But what if…?’ and ‘Yeah, I know, but…’ It’s a no-win situation.
You are stuck in the Limbic System and no amount of rationalising is going to budge you into the Pre-frontal Cortex.
We are hypervigilant to every possible threat whilst in a worry state. So, we first need to get a bit of distance from the potential hazard. Acknowledging what it is we feel scared of can feel threatening in itself, so writing it down in private can help with this.
Once it is written down, we will have a load more bubbles waiting to be released. So, next we need to try to be as mindful as possible, to halt the process. Return to what you were trying to do before you started to worry. Use all five of your senses to be in the moment. If we can do this, it reduces the opportunity to worry. Biologically, it is impossible to focus on more than one thing at once. So, keep coming back to your sense of touch, or smell, or hearing etc in the moment.
Each time you notice a worry, write it down and repeat the mindful actions above.
We need to practice this over and over. This is THE best thing I ever learned to do. It quietened my mind and helped me to claim back so much time and energy in my life.
If you decide to give it a go do let me know and if you would like to learn more tips and ways to reduce overthinking and overwhelm, do come join me in the Facebook group Overthinkers Undermined.