I’ve been a lifelong worrier.
That wiring in my brain that has given me the ability to brainstorm risks and unintended consequences, which has helped me debug software and write watertight contracts in my career, has blighted my personal life with an ability to see how everything could go wrong, and go wrong badly.
But I’ve recently made a lot of progress with breaking the thinking patterns that have previously almost literally paralysed me for days at a time.
The way that I did this was to affirm two simple truths and apply a simple method that I’ll describe below.
Two Truths as a Call to Action
The two truths I’m talking about are like beacons on opposing harbour walls that guide me into safer waters. I come back to them if I ever find myself worrying again. Here they are:
- The fact that I worry about so many different things tells me that it’s my habitual thinking patterns that need attention, rather than any of the topics themselves
- The fact that I worry about so many different things tells me that these things are getting my attention because my “worry alarm” is too sensitive, rather than because these things objectively require my attention.
Let’s explain these a bit more.
“Yeah, but you worry about Everything“
The first of these truths is like someone saying to me “Yeah, but you worry about Everything” in response to me saying I’m worried about a particular thing. And, for once, it’s an accurate observation that’s actually helpful. I do worry about everything. Or at least, I have the propensity to. And what it means, is that my propensity to worry deserves more attention than any particular worry that comes along to demonstrate the sorts of things that I can worry about. I need to fix my brain, not the latest tangle of rumination.
“You’re only Worrying because you’re Hypervigilant”
In a similar vein, reminding myself that I have a very low threshold for being triggered into worry helps me realise that if my brain were operating “normally”, the latest worry topic probably wouldn’t have been noticed and wouldn’t have been worried about.
So, again, it’s a reminder that I need to fix my brain & not the latest topic.
How Not To Worry
So, how do I stop worrying? I’ve convinced myself that my brain needs fixing but I can hardly grab a screwdriver and turn down the worry alarm sensitivity!
The idea I came across that helped enormously is called Exposure and Response Prevention or ERP. It sounded horrific when I first heard it! I imagined me, with my intense dislike of being in the presence of wasps, being thrown into a room full of wasp nests by an evil therapist and not let out until I could allow myself to be crawled on, flown at and stung without complaining or flinging my arms about. I imagined the stress of all of my habitual worries arriving at once and being sat on so I couldn’t do anything about them. But it’s not like that, thankfully!
I read a book by Olle Wadstrom called “Quit Ruminating and Brooding“, in which he explains that our usual pattern of worry is like a tennis game in which one part of our brain serves an unsettling thought and another (the “I” part, I guess) attempts to return the ball by countering with a reason why that thought is untrue, unhelpful or unlikely. Or it tries countless other strategies to keep the ball at the other side of the net.
The problem with this strategy (and, it is a strategy; one that is even out there as “good advice” on how to settle unsettling thoughts!) is that the game can go on, and on, and on. We can get stuck finding reasons why the agent provocateur that lives inside our minds is wrong, misinformed, making mountains out of molehills etc etc etc. It can simply make the worry seeds stronger. It puts our focus on the worry. Even worse than that, it can send us to Google looking for counter arguments and before we know it we are shopping for pain or have at least seen even more terrible consequences than we had previously imagined or found new things to worry about!
The same goes for the seemingly innocuous tactic of seeking reassurance; it’s ultimately counterproductive when it comes to training your brain not to worry. Sure, a trouble shared is a trouble halved; it is cathartic to talk it out. But it doesn’t matter how many people you find to talk to, even people in almost exactly the same circumstances as you who had maybe a positive outcome, even professional experts who could tell you that everything will probably be OK; you will still have used your energy to feed (or temporarily soothe) the worry monster rather than kill it. And even experts can be wrong, and even experts might not have all of the facts nor be able to predict the future with 100% certainty. So isn’t it clearly more useful to become comfortable with uncertainty and do away with the need for reassurance in the first place?
Kuzushi – or ERP Done Right!
The trick with doing ERP “right” is to realise that you’re going to have to behave differently than you have in the past – perhaps for decades. It means allowing the unsettling thoughts to arrive and resisting the urge to counter argue.
There is a technique in martial arts called Kuzushi. It means, basically, “Using your opponent’s momentum against them”. It’s classically grabbing a thrown punch and pulling their arm in the same direction that they were already going. Not only is this likely to throw them off balance physically, it is likely to take them by surprise too.
It’s the same kind of thing with the unsettling thoughts. Along comes a thought that fills you with anxiety or dread and you respond with “Yeah, you’re probably right. So what?”.
Now, that isn’t easy. Because you have to sit with the idea that the thing that you fear so terribly is true and is going to happen (or did happen meaning that you’re a horrible / evil person or whatever). But after a while (and I found that this happened after only one or two tries) the feeling becomes less hard to sit with. And the wonderful thing is that sitting with that feeling is almost immediately easier than the endless torture of the mental gymnastics and self comforting and, perhaps, self medicating behaviours that you used to engage with to deflect, forget, or ignore the horrible thought only to repeat the cycle once your nervous system has found balance again.
It took only a week or two practicing this new (to me) technique, and using the Two Truths above to remind myself WHY I was doing it and why it was, and remains, necessary, to see me find a new and unfamiliar space of serenity.
But what if I was right to Worry?
Inevitably, my brain tried to derail my attempts to find healthier patterns by saying:
“Well that’s all OK if these are humdrum niggles but this one might have disastrous consequences AND it might be true so you’d better abandon this idea that everything is OK and go back to worrying about it …”~ the evil part of my brain
Once again, the Two Truths come to my rescue. I worry about everything (and it’s a destructive habit); this particular worry ain’t special, and it’s my brain that needs to change. I worry about everything (I have a low threshold); my worrying about something doesn’t imply that the worry is worthy of worry by healthy standards!
And, being realistic, whether or not I worry about something, especially if it’s something in the past or otherwise out of my control, really won’t change how life unfolds. So if I have a choice of training my brain to give me a more pleasant life, why would I let something that I can’t control stop me doing that?
“Why would I deliberately sabotage my potential serenity in order to focus on something that I can’t control?”The Autistic Phoenix
That last quote above is one that I’ve only just thought of that I think is going to be another useful defence. I can have a future of worry, or the same future without worry. Which do I choose?
That all sounds too hard
If you’re thinking it all sounds too hard, and that in any case there are real worries that deserve your attention that you really can’t turn your back on, consider this:
How much do you hate worrying? How much do you want to fight the worries? How much do you want to rip the face off of the monster that keeps you awake at night and makes your stomach knot in the afternoon or your legs freeze in the morning?
Isn’t it worth taking that energy and using it against your worry monster rather than against the worries themselves? Knowing that fighting worry with worry only leads to more worry?
I’m not going to lie, it can be hard and it can slip into reverse (like all of life can). But worrying is sodding hard too. This at least makes progress.
~ Two Truths, one Method
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