#302 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 10          October 1997

Soothing the Worrywart
by Beverly Potter, Ph.D.

Dr. Potter provides management and self-development training for corporations, government agencies and colleges.  Among several books she has authored are The Worrywart’s Companion (Wildcat Canyon Press, Berkeley, CA, 1997) and Finding A Path With A Heart:  How To Go From Burnout to Bliss (Ronin Publishing, Berkeley, CA, 1995).  She is located in Berkeley, California and can be reached by phone at 510-540-6278, or by  email at beverly@docpotter.com, www.docpotter.com/.

Worrying is good because it anticipates danger before it arises, identifies possible perils, comes up with ways to lessen the risks, and rehearses what you plan to do.  But there are some people, worrywarts, who seem to become stuck in identifying danger.  Perhaps you manage such an individual.  They immerse themselves in the dread associated with the threat, which may be real or, more likely, imagined.  They spin out an endless loop of melodrama, blowing everything out of proportion.  “What if I can’t handle this new responsibility?”  “What if I don’t sleep well the night before my presentation?”  “What if I don’t reach that sales quota?”  “What if my new staff member can’t fit in?”

While worrywarts insist worrying is helpful, little is solved.  They are tormented by their thinking ruts, and stop living in the present moment.  Worrywarts waste important time and energy.  Worse yet, worry begets more worry, setting into motion a vicious cycle of anxiety.  Many of these people want to analyze everything; they become perfectionists.  But their analysis gets in the way of getting things done, moving ahead.  Excessive worrying tends to crowd out everything else, spoiling the day and sometimes disrupting sleep.  You get nowhere by merely telling them, “Don’t worry.”  However, if you understand the worrywart, it will be easier to help him or her.

Thinking Habits

Worrywarts have some bad thinking habits.  They are not born with a predisposition to anxious self-talk.  They learned it!  They also can change bad thinking habits in the same way they would change any other habit.

Smart worriers, on the other hand, avoid becoming consumed by anxiety by studying the perils associated with a worrisome situation, by recognizing their distress as anxiety, and by bringing themselves back to the balance.  Worrywarts do the opposite.  They keep themselves in a state of agitation.  Smart worriers soothe themselves, while worrywarts rile themselves up.

Worry is an inner dialog called “self-talk,” a talking it over with oneself as a way to cope with bothersome situations.  The nature of that dialog is tremendously powerful in shaping how you feel and what you do.  Worrywart’s self-talk is judgmental, critical and scary, keeping them off-balance and unnerved as it triggers more worry.

Smart worriers talk to themselves the way a friend would.  Friends encourage, give permission and challenge extremes.  Thus, smart worriers become hopeful, think flexibly and look for solutions, even if they are only partial solutions.  And smart worriers accept what can’t be changed.

Help for the Worrywart

If you recognize the worrywart type in your group, show him or her (or them) this article.  Or, perhaps, you will want to provide your own recommendations in getting out of this mental habit.  Here are some hints that have actually helped worrywarts.

Watch How You Worry.  Don’t make the mistake of trying to change your worrying before you understand it.  Keep a record of the themes of your worries, your worrying times and the triggers that initiated the worries.  Rate the degree of each worry and the sensations you feel.  List the fears hiding in that worry.  As you write about the worry, you are taking action and gaining control.  You are doing something other than worrying.  You’ll begin to understand your habit.

Friendly Talk.  Your ever-present companion—you—causes the worrywart habit.  Get that companion to help you, and talk to you as a friend would.  This is a technique that psychologists find to be quite effective.  Have an internal dialog to help you stop criticizing yourself.  Use the internal dialog to support yourself and make decisions or set goals.  The best way to do this is to imagine what a friend would say.  What would he or she say to soothe you and bring you back to balance?  You may want to write your “companion’s” suggestions in a notebook.

The worrywarting habit took years to develop; therefore, it’s not surprising that the self-talk method will take time and effort.  Talk to yourself in an undemanding and pleasant way, just the way a good friend would talk to you.

Challenge Your Worry.  An unchallenged worrisome thought, repeated over and over, gains persuasive power through a kind of brainwashing.  It becomes so compelling you forget it is only one way of looking at the situation.  Soon you believe the worry is an established fact.  Then, you are convinced of the truth of your worry.  And that’s where you’re stuck.

However, there is always more than one way to view things.  Challenging a worrisome thought by contemplating a range of equally plausible points of view keeps the worry from being taken as true.  If you see yourself trapped and helpless, you’ll feel depressed; whereas if you look at the situation as a difficult, but surmountable, challenge, you’re likely to feel hopeful determination.

While it doesn’t seem so, it is actually a matter of choice.  You can choose among ways of viewing a worrisome situation by the way you think about it.  You may not be able to control a disturbing event, but you can control what you say to yourself about it.  That’s what smart worriers do, they change their view and how they feel.  They actively challenge worrisome thoughts.

From the notes on your worrying habits, you’ll become more aware of anxiety-provoking automatic thoughts as they occur.  Review the “data” and ask yourself what went through your mind at the time.  Then under the worrisome thought, write the word “Challenges.”  Do some brainstorming for alternative views of the situation.  You don’t even have to be logical.  The main thing is to catch worries and get in the habit of challenging them.

Look for Solutions.  Worry is beneficial provided you worry smart.  Smart worry leads to action, to doing something to improve your situation.  Worry that doesn’t lead to action is useless, even destructive.  You can be worrying and not really be aware of it.  It just seems to go on automatically while you’re doing something else.  You must bring that worry to your conscious attention before you can find a solution.  Then ask yourself, “What am I really worrying about?”

Then ask, “Is there anything I can do about this?”  If the answer to this question is “No,” then there is no gain, no benefit in continuing to worry about it.  To continue worrying is worrywarting. 

But worry can lead to something productive, so don’t be too quick to answer “No,” for this can lead to the feeling of powerlessness and damage motivation.  The fact is, there is almost always something you can do.

If the answer to the question is “Yes,” then begin to look for solutions.  Once again, there is no reason to continue worrying about it.  So let go of the worry and find the solution.   

Distract Yourself from the Worry.  The smart worrier focuses on things other than the worrisome event.  There are a number of ways to do this.  Engage yourself in something routine that is pleasant to you, such as taking a walk, driving, cooking or doing crossword puzzles.  There is a fair chance that you’ll arrive at a solution to the problem while disengaging yourself from it.

Another approach to soothing your anxiety is to imagine positive possibilities to the worrisome problem.  Just the change of attitude can get you thinking in new ways.

One favorite technique is through humor.  Think about something funny related to the problem.   Or make a joke out of the uncomfortable situation.  Use your imagination.  What you’ll be doing is getting off the negative and focusing on something positive, laughter (or maybe just an internal giggle).  This is a good way to release tension.

The main thing, however, is to recognize the worrywart.  It could be you, or it could be someone you supervise.  Once you recognize this debilitating habit, then do something to reverse it.  The above hints are just a start.

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