It is natural to feel worried in these difficult and extraordinary times, so coping with worry is even more important now. Our brains are designed to predict danger and threats. This has helped us thrive as a race for millions of years as our minds and bodies have evolved to cope. The issue is when we over worry or we cannot do anything about the threat we perceive. When we faced a sabre-toothed tiger then we needed the fight, flight or freeze response. This does not help us when we are confined in our house with no way to release the adrenaline.
What is worry?
Worry is a feeling of concern or anxiety created by thoughts, which release adrenaline and other threat responses in our body. It can be mild or severe, even leading to panic attacks and can last for a few moments to many years. It can cause long term anxiety or depression. An anxiety disorder is when this is more severe, is long-lasting and interferes with the person’s work or relationships.
Impact of Over Worrying
Long term worrying has adverse effects on mind and body including palpitations, headaches, insomnia, nightmares, confusion and reduced immunity. At this time, we need all the immunity we can get. Excessive worrying impacts on our capacity to make good judgement as well. It can even freeze our brain, so it’s hard to think at all. If not controlled, the situation can escalate in a downward spiral.
Treat Worry as a Friend
Our brain’s ability to sense danger is honed to keep us safe and problem solve, so we should not beat ourselves up for worrying. There is a danger in denying that feeling, pushing it under the surface or getting angry with yourself for feeling like that. However, the degree of worry needs to be in proportion to the threat.
Imagine you are sitting on a park bench (when we could!) with a friend, who is upset. I am sure you would empathise with them, be kind to them and help them find solutions. The important thing is not to take their feelings on board yourself. Worry is your friend. Recognise it, acknowledge it and then let it go. Do not let it take control of you. I like to imagine I am tying my worry to a helium balloon and letting it float away. Perversely, I am inspired by Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, whose answer to an unsolvable worry was to say ‘I’ll think about that tomorrow’.
Fear is False Evidence Appearing Real
“My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened.” Michel de Montaigne
It is about focusing on facts and solutions rather than on the worry or fear itself. The evidence is that 85% of what we worry about never happens. Of the 15% of the time it does happen, about 79% of people will discover either they can handle the difficulty better than expected, or the difficulty teaches a lesson worth learning. This means that 97% of what you worry over is not much more than a fearful mind punishing you with exaggerations and misperceptions.
With all the negative news from the media and social media available 24 hours a day, it is easy to get a distorted image of what is actually happening. It is like pouring petrol on a fire. You can counter this with the old saying of counting your blessings. You may like to make a list of all the positive things at the moment. For example, more time to do the jobs you have been putting off for years, opportunity to learn a language or sort out the loft, or even the enforced regime to eat fewer take-aways and drink less at the pub.
Change Your Thinking
“A change of thought is the only thing that can ever work to change behaviour.” Jack Pransky
If our feelings come from our thoughts, it seems logical to change our thinking and self-talk. If you catch yourself saying ‘I am really worried (or terrified)’, try changing it to ‘I’m a bit concerned’. It’s amazing how the body response changes depending on the words you use. If you keep telling yourself you have always been a worrier and can’t help it, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When you get your mind to focus on practical solutions rather than the worry of it, then a different part of the brain and hormones come into play. If you can find something to laugh about, this also creates a good response. Fortunately there is some great humour being generated at the moment.
The natural threat response is designed for us to act, but if we are sitting inactively then the hormones remain in our body. A way to help dispel worry is to do something physical, be active or tackle the problem.
According to the Collins English Dictionary – ‘A problem is a situation that is unsatisfactory and causes difficulties for people’. Another definition is that a problem is a situation, person, or thing that needs attention and needs to be dealt with or solved.
If there is no solution is it a problem? In simple terms, many farmers worry about the weather, but there is nothing they can do about it. The weather is not the problem. The problem is how they are going to get their crops into wet ground.
In the current situation, coronavirus is not the problem for us, because there is nothing we can do about it. The problem is how we can protect ourselves from it. If we get our brain to focus on what is the solvable issue, then we can come up with answers and there is one thing less to worry about.
For me, I could worry about how my son and his family are going to cope in London, but there is nothing I can do about that. I can focus on how I can offer the realistically achievable support they need.
Talk it Through
A great way to get worries in proportion is to talk to someone else about your concerns. Self-isolation can make us feel we are on our own, but support from a friend or family member may be only a phone call away.
Alone in our head, these worries grow into mountains and become tangled and confusing. When we articulate them, then we have to get them in some order and make sense of them. This act of expressing fears can reduce their power. I recommend choosing a calm and positive person to speak to, so that you don’t build on each other’s fears. One positive aspect of this pandemic is that we are seeing more community spirit and support, plus people have more time for each other.
The risk is if we let worry overwhelm us, we can turn to alcohol, drugs or other addictions. This is not a solution, so make talking to others your addiction.
If someone asks to talk to you about their worries, then I recommend following the MHFA advice of ALGEE.
- Approach the person (remotely at the moment unless in the same household), assess and assist.
- Listen (actively) and communicate non-judgmentally.
- Give support and information (making sure it is accurate and factual).
- Encourage the person to get appropriate professional help (if required).
- Encourage other support (family and friends).
Conclusion – Coping with Worry
It is natural to worry, but over worrying is harmful and doesn’t solve anything. Coping with worry is a choice and you can take steps by choosing your thoughts, sticking to facts, solving the real problem and talking to someone.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Viktor E. Frankl,
The most important thing is to be kind to yourself and know you have everything within you to thrive. If you would like to talk this through with me, then contact me and we can arrange a ‘meet-up’ on Skype or Zoom. In the meantime, stay safe and well.