Worry… Worry… Worry… (Not!)

The thing that strikes me most about the Dalai Lama is not his political or religious leadership of Tibet’s community in exile, not his winning of the Nobel peace prize, nor his profound wisdom or encyclopedic knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism; it is his downright simplicity, his aura of peace and humility and his penchant for spontaneous and frequent laughter.

While on a recent visit to Canada, when asked by a reporter about his sense of humour, the Dalai Lama replied that “It is spontaneous” and he went on to say, “When we face some problem, look at that problem and analyze if there is a way to overcome that problem. [If so,] no need to worry. Make effort,” he said. “On the other hand, if the problem [has] no way to overcome, no use to worry. I believe that.”

A friend reminded me of Jesus’ teaching in the same vein, “None of you can add any time to your life by worrying about it.  If you cannot do the little things, then why worry about the big things.”

I spend a lot of valuable time worrying about things… I worry about my job, my relationships, my kids’ futures, my finances… whether I remembered to turn off the lights or the stove; I even worry about whether I’ll have enough put away to be able to retire in this lifetime.  Part of me believes that worry is, in part, an inherited trait (My grandmother was a terrific worrier and so am I.), though I suspect that worry is principally a learned behaviour and a bad habit.  Worry may serve a positive purpose when it alerts us to things we need to take care of and moves us closer to realizing our goals.  We often worry over things that we have neglected or ignored and that require our attention.  Some worries, too, about our friends and loved ones are well founded, a natural function of our desire to protect them from potential, future harm.  As Jesus and the Dalai Lama have pointed out, however, once we have done what we can do to try to address our current problems and to provide for future contingencies, we need to let the rest go. 

I think it is true to say that we are attracted to horror stories and negative outcomes.  Most of the news we are exposed to is bad news and it easy to imagine that the world is an evil and dangerous place.  In our daily lives, however, at work and in our communities, our experience teaches us that the world we encounter, is, for the most part, if not entirely benevolent, then generally benign.  A teacher told me a story earlier this week about taking her elementary classroom on a field trip to a downtown market.  A number of the students were genuinely concerned that they might be in danger of being shot or even killed.  In fact, there was probably less danger present in this downtown market than in the suburban communities from which they came.  I am not trying to minimize the dangers or pretend that there are not good reasons to be concerned about the genuine ills that disturb our planet:  Wars, disease, famine, pestilence, natural and man-made disasters, crime… there is no shortage of real and present danger.  But again, once we have made efforts to address these issues (understanding that our reach is sometimes limited and that over some events we have no control), we must sever our attachment. This is the only way that we can achieve the deep and abiding peace that we so ardently desire.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental health problems. It is estimated that they affect approximately 1 in 10 people.  In addition to anxiety and depression, chronic worry can lead to a number of physical ailments: heart attacks, high blood pressure, ulcers, gastrointestinal problems, muscular aches and pains, skin rashes, eczema, respiratory problems and asthma.

We all suffer from worry and anxiety at times, but is there anything we can do to combat persistent and unwanted distress?

Audrey Sussman, in an Ezine article, entitled, “Why do People Worry? Technique to Stop Worry in its tracks, relates the following exercise, she calls the “2 for 1 Technique”. In the article she says,

 “It draws upon the same powerful imagination that you use to create negative stories but instead you use it to create positive thoughts instead. By practicing it consistently, you begin to change the cognitive thought cycles that are causing your worry, and as an extra bonus it also adjusts the unconscious assumptions that keep the cycles alive.”

She uses the example of a parent’s worries triggered by about her child’s play date that afternoon:

“She was sitting on the couch at night, thinking about her child’s play date that afternoon. She found herself troubled because as she remembered seeing her child’s delays in many areas that were so apparent as he played with his friend. Her mind started to spin off into all sorts of other areas. Will he be able to function in life? Will others tease him? Will he feel bad about himself and lose his joy of live? Will he be able to have a job? And the answers she was creating were not pretty. Yet she knows her child is just 8 years old and that many things can take place. To use the “2 for 1” Exercise you would do the following:

Step 1: Jot down the facts: What happened at the event.

Step 2: Then make a list of the negative thoughts and fears you are feeling, every thought or vision that moves through your mind. An interesting thing begins to happen as you write the negative thoughts, you will start to realize that no matter how much you might worry that the thoughts might be true, they are still just one possible way things may possibly happen.

Step 3: The next and most important step is to cross out the first negative thought you have written down, and write down two possible positive thoughts or possible positive outcomes in its place. Repeat this for each negative thought on the list, until all your negative thoughts are crossed out and replaced by positive ones.

Most of us are far more used to telling ourselves negative stories than positive ones. So it may feel a little strange at first to accept these positive thoughts as readily as you did the negative ones. With practice, though, you will find that the positive thoughts start to pop up on their own, just as the negative ones once did. Those positive possibilities will replace the cycle of worry with one of hope and potential.”

You can read the entire article here:

Meditation and concentration on the breath can help to alleviate acute anxiety, and, in addition, meditation helps to focus our attention on the here and now and away from a hypothetical future that may give rise to imagined difficulties, painful thoughts and worry.  This kind of practice can also have an effect on reducing your anxiety threshold and quieting your nervous system.

Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) direct us to the clear link between thinking and feeling and help us to modify or restructure our emotional wiring through challenging our reflexive reactions.   By challenging our irrational thoughts we can actually short-circuit our habitual reactions and alleviate our unreasonable concerns.  For example, someone who is inordinately worried about losing their job and, being unable to support themselves and being worthless might look for evidence to support their belief — Is your job actually threatened?  Have you done anything that might jeopardize their employment?  Are there organizational changes like restructuring that might affect your current position?  Didn’t you just receive high praise for their most recent project? — and so on.  Even if the individual was to lose his or her job, does that automatically mean they are worthless?  This kind of absolute all-or-nothing thinking and cognitive distortion can lead to all kinds of needless worry and anxiety.  It is almost always reflexive and based on unsound reasoning.  The absence of evidence to support our conjectures can help to eliminate the worry at its source.
Another very simple technique for eliminating worry is to consciously postpone your worry:

1. Write down your worry.  This simple step forces you to face and accept your worry.

2. Set it aside.  Tell yourself that you don’t need to worry about that right now. 

3. Create a worry period of fixed duration (five to fifteen minutes) where you focus exclusively on the worries on your list.  Once the period is over, the rest of your day is worry free.

In a previous article, Chuck Gallozzi mentioned the importance of exercise in combating depression.  The same is true of worry and anxiety.  Regular exercise is a virtual panacea when it comes to worry and anxiety.  Exercise helps you to feel good, to feel confident and in control of your life.  It stimulates endorphins that are natural antidotes to depression, self-doubt, worry and concern.

A lot of worry is caused by uncertainty.  It is well to remember that life is an uncertain affair. We can never be 100% sure of anything – except perhaps uncertainty itself.

Laughter provides an immediate cure for anxiety and worry.  It is impossible to laugh and be worried at the same time. Laughter instantly elevates your mood, reduces pain and stress and boosts immunity.

Finally, Dale Carnegie reminds us,

“Do you remember the things you were worrying about a year ago?  How did they work out?  Didn’t you waste a lot of fruitless energy on account of most of them? Didn’t most of them turn out all right after all?” 

A wise person noted, “Don’t worry about today.  It’s already tomorrow in Australia”.