Worry Loop

Many people either feel regretful or resentful about the past, or they worry about the future. Today I will talk about worry.
Worry or concerned thoughts are completely natural and some level of concern is necessary in our lives to prepare our body and mind to respond to a situation. But left unchecked, this concern can begin to run our lives and turn into chronic worry. Chronic worry is similar to a computer program that is running in the background and you don’t even realize it. During the day you are distracted with your life, but in the middle of the night with no distractions the worry is very loud and you can’t ignore it. Your worry thoughts lead to anxious feelings, with increased heart rate, blood pressure and headaches.
Unfortunately, many people are in a constant state of hyper-awareness or anxiety and they are living with this heightened hyper-vigilance or chronic worry all of the time. They are so used to it they have forgotten what it is like to be in a calmer state. For many people this hyper state leads them to have migraines, increased levels of heart rate, blood pressure and adrenaline overdrive. They are literally burning out their bodies because of being in a more anxious state than what is needed. The main issue here is they are applying the same threat level to a variety of situations – in other words everything seems and feels like a crisis to them. They are prepared all of the time for a catastrophic event.
Someone like this who is anxious all of the time have what is termed Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This likely develops from being anxious or worried about a few things in their life and before they realize it they are applying this anxiousness to all areas of their life. They have blanketed every situation with the thought and feeling as if they need to be on high alert. The reality is they probably don’t need to be on high alert all of the time, but it has become their “new normal”. Their body, mind and emotions have become used to this new state and they are training themselves to be in a constant state of “fight or flight”.
Another example of a worry state which is more subtle is where in the middle of the night you are sleeping contently and all of a sudden you start thinking worrisome thoughts that something bad is going to happen, then you start thinking that something bad is going to happen to someone you love. Your mind is starting to race with worry thoughts and you are feeling anxious. You look at the clock and it is 3:20 am, and then you start thinking what in the world, why am I having these thoughts right now?
I believe we are worrying to give ourselves, (our minds) some sense of control over an outcome and what I say is worry is our feeble attempt at trying to control the future. We all have done this, but the difference are those who worry occasionally, versus those who have trained their minds to worry, or the chronic worriers.
Try to give your mind the instruction of how to transform the worry into action. Think of how you can make a plan to address a problem instead of feeding the worry. Stop the worry cycle and create an action cycle for your mind. Get your mind out of the worry loop.
The most important thing to know is that you are in control of your mind; your mind is not in control of you. You are the master and creator of what your mind is focusing on and you have power to change the channels so to speak in your mind. For example, if we go back to the situation of waking up in the middle of the night with worrisome thoughts; see if you can say this to yourself: “ok, I’m having some worry thoughts, which is all they are, worry thoughts. I can’t do anything about these things that feel overwhelming to me right now and I don’t know why I’m having them. I’m not going to give them power any more, now is the time to sleep”. It sounds simple, but believe me it is hard to do when you have a worry thought that doesn’t want to go away.
What you have done is given your mind an instruction, just like pressing the enter key on your keyboard. You are giving an instruction to your computer brain that Now is the time to sleep. If the thoughts keep persisting see if you can use the imagery of “putting” the thoughts on a shelf and you will get back to them in the morning. Whatever works for you as you will need to be creative at three in the morning. With some clients who are overthinkers I have them write down everything that is on their mind at the end of the day on a note pad beside their bed. Then tell themselves that the notepad is going to hold onto the thoughts. For example, this could be your to do list for the next day, projects you are working on and things you forgot to do that day. Let the note pad carry the to do list instead of you continually creating this to do list in your mind over and over throughout the entire night. Writing things down really does help in general because when we have them written down, our minds know this and we don’t keep recreating the list of the 1,2,3… things to do in our heads.
Your mind still may be tempted to “work” on all of these things overnight and that’s why many people wake up feeling not rested because their minds were working all night. We are constantly using our minds, so our minds think this is what we want, but there are better times than others to be analytical.
Let’s talk about how to address this physical reaction or feelings of worry which will manifest usually as a form of anxiety. Usually when we are worried or anxious we start taking very shallow breaths. So a way to deal directly with this is by taking deeper belly breaths and this type of breathing sends a message to the deepest part of our primitive brain the amygdala that says “I’m not in trouble”, “I can relax, I’m safe”. So deeper breathing relaxes this fight or flight response and tells the brain to calm down. Try this now as you are reading, put your hand on your belly and just take some long slow deep breaths. Feel as your stomach expands and your hand rises and falls. Somatically you are telling yourself, you are OK. We do this to calm babies down all the time by rubbing their bellies, so why can’t we do this for ourselves as adults.
Another way to do the same exercise is to say the following to yourself as you inhale, “I am breathing in” and on the exhale “I am breathing out”. That’s all you have to do is to just repeat that to yourself at the same rhythm that you are taking your breaths in and out. So if you are breathing very quickly you would say this to yourself very quickly. The idea is that as you are focusing on the words you will be slowing down your breathing. As you slow down your breathing you are telling yourself that you are not in trouble and you don’t’ need to prepare yourself for something bad. This is a great exercise to use because no one needs to know what you are doing so it’s perfect for when you are in meetings or other stressful situations. It will help keep you calm in the middle of those storms.
The deep breathing I am talking about is more restorative for your body system than shallow chest breathing. Deep breathing is slower and deeper and involves your belly so that your diaphragm, the muscle anchored to your lower rib cage, can push down further and allow more air to flow into your lungs. So, just close your eyes and inhale with your mouth closed and your shoulders and belly relaxed, inhale as slowly and deeply as you can. When you breathe in, your abdomen should expand. Now hold the air in your lungs for a few seconds. Then slowly exhale and release the air through your mouth. Do all the steps three to five times. And as we did the exercise before, for some people it helps to place your hand over your belly to remind yourself to breath deeper. (MAYO clinic newsletter October 2013.) The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress Free Living, Amit Sood, M.D. See if you can calm yourself enough to take an inventory of what your emotional system is trying to tell you.
Here’s another example that I use to appeal to the logical part of the mind. For clients who are chronic worriers I will make up a hypothetical situation that we could sit in my office for the entire hour worrying and then feeling very anxious about whether or not they have a flat tire on their car. We could sit there and fret and worry getting ourselves all worked up. But, what is the reality most of the time? Most of the time you are not going to have a flat tire on your car. And, even if you did go out and find one of your tires flat what will you do next? Most people reply that they will fix it themselves or call someone to replace the tire.
At those moments of decision, we use all of our accumulated knowledge when we encounter a situation be it mundane or extraordinary to fix, resolve, avoid, prepare or remove. We don’t need to think about (worry about) what to do if we encounter a flat tire – because most have learned what to do in such cases. But even in those extraordinary encounters or moments of decision, we use all of our resources to figure something out in the moment.
Trust yourself; calm your mind get out of the worry loop and remember to rest easy because it’s all going to be OK.

Robert Jackman, LCPC

Helpful resources:

The Worry Trap: How to free yourself from Worry and Anxiety using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. LeJeune

The Worry Trick: How your brain tricks you into expecting the worst and what you can do about it. Carbonell and Winston

How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. Dale Carnegie


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