Don't worry, it might never happen

 

Are you worried about your worrying? Despite the research and the numerous books on the subject, worry has proved to be extremely resistant to treatment. Michelle McDonaghreports.

For most people today, worry is part and parcel of our everyday lives. We worry about our jobs, our health, our children, our finances, we even worry about our worrying.

Telling yourself that 99.9 per cent of the things you worry about will probably never come to pass doesn't help when you're lying awake at night fretting over the latest rise in interest rates or the fact that your youngest daughter is still out.

And if somebody tells you "don't worry, it might never happen", you will inevitably start to worry even more.

The bookshelves are full of books on how to stop worrying, but while many other anxiety disorders and phobias can be successfully treated through psychology or psychotherapy, worry has proved to be extremely resistant to treatment.

Worrying is not the same as the medical diagnosis of anxiety disorder, when anxious thoughts take over our lives to the degree that we need professional help, but worries can still prevent us from enjoying life to the full.

Senior clinical psychologist Dr Tony Bates says: "The French philosopher, Montaigne, captured the essence of worry when he remarked, 'My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which have never happened.'

"Even when bad things happen, they are rarely as bad as we imagine, and our worrying always blinds us to our coping resources that kick into action when we most need them."

Bates points out that when we engage in worry, our thinking is dominated by the anticipation of negative events that we think might happen.

Basic "fight or flight" responses are activated as the body prepares us to either escape the imagined threat or deal with it, but the scenarios we fear do not yet exist and most probably will never happen.

The only option is to freeze, to procrastinate and give ourselves over to further worry and rumination. Our bodies carry the cost of this worrying.

We experience persistent tension that can give rise to headaches or vague somatic pains.

"One man described his existence as one where he constantly 'had two nines dialled'. The edginess this produced was necessary, he believed, to maintain him in a state of readiness for some disaster that would inevitably strike," says Bates.

Bates says the man's chronic state of anxiety became, in turn, the evidence that something awful could happen, and he worried even more as to what that might be and how he could avert it.

"This cycle of anxiety gradually wore him out, reduced his ability to concentrate on the job at hand, and perform as well as he might have in his work," Bates explains.

Worrying becomes a self-perpetuating habit and we start to believe that by worrying, we may actually prevent bad things from happening.

A mother may sincerely believe that worrying about her children's safety will lessen the chance that they could be knocked down by a car. And when nothing bad does happen, as is so often the case with our worries, her superstition is reinforced.

According to Bates, "We may also worry so as not to think about what's really bothering us. When our minds are dominated by worry, our memories and emotions become temporarily suppressed as the body prepares to deal with some imminent threat.

"Worrying about unlikely dangers may allow us avoid thinking about the current issues that are undermining our sense of safety in the present.

"A troubled relationship, an unresolved conflict, a loss that we find hard to grieve."

However, a new psychotherapy approach called mindfulness seems to be showing promise in helping people to address their constant worrying.

There has been an explosion of interest among psychotherapy practitioners and researchers worldwide in mindfulness - which has its origins in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions - over the past number of years.

Its value in helping people with chronic physical illnesses, with severe personality problems, with recurrent depression, and with certain anxiety disorders has been demonstrated in repeated controlled studies.

"Mindfulness has been found to be the best non-drug intervention for the prevention of relapse in depression and it is now being used in worrying particularly," says Bates.

"The studies on worry have not yet come back, but they look very promising. Mindfulness is the biggest thing to have hit psychotherapy in the past five years even though it's actually been around for over 2,000 years," he says.

In July 2004, Bates spent three weeks on a summer retreat at Plum Village monastery, in the south of France, with Zen master, poet, peace activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh, whose writings on mindfulness are the basis for these newer psychotherapy approaches.

"Mindfulness is the practice of being attentive to whatever you are doing, whatever you are feeling, in the present moment. It is about waking up to your life so that you are fully living it in this moment," he explains.

Instead of trying to stop or suppress your worrying behaviour, Bates suggests that the most effective action you can take is to gently acknowledge your worrying and to let it be without getting pulled into it.

"Anchoring yourself in the present moment, through attending to your breathing and the tasks in which you are currently involved, can ground and steady you when worry pulls you into possible future nightmares," he advises.

"Simply focusing on the rhythm of your breathing as it passes in and out of our nostrils can help you to break the grip of worry and relax," he says.

"Another antidote is to focus on the activity you are currently engaged in, and value it for its own sake rather than dwell on possible outcomes.

"Focusing on the process of doing what you are doing, be it washing dishes, clearing your desk or writing a proposal, rather than the outcome of that endeavour, keeps your attention where it is most needed and frees you from worry."

A lecturer at the Department of Applied Psychology at University College Cork, Dr Ethel Quayle, agrees that while worry can be useful in terms of problem-solving and affecting action, it becomes a problem when we start to worry about our worrying.

"The more we worry about the detrimental effects of worrying, the more of a problematic state it becomes. It's a vicious circle. A lot of the newer research in the area is not about how to control our worrying, but about how to stop trying to control it," she says.

"The very process of trying to control private events, like thoughts, makes us hyper-sensitive to having them and is an increasing source of worry in itself," she explains.

Quayle is another advocate of the mindfulness approach of simply standing back, observing your worrying behaviour and letting it go without feeling you have to do something about it.

Rather than endlessly worrying, she advises people to turn their worry into a problem-solving exercise, to choose the most suitable solution to the particular cause of worry and move on.

If there is no immediate solution, then you just have to let whatever is worrying you go.

"Worrying is something we all do but it's how we respond to it that's important." says Quayle.

People with an exaggerated sense of personal responsibility are more likely to worry incessantly. People have a disproportionate sense of responsibility for possible outcomes of events and we tend to catastrophise situations.

"We need to interrupt the process of worrying and to turn it into some sort of solution-based approach instead," suggests Quayle.