Worrying is common and everyone worries from time to time. But for some people, “worry is a way of life,” says clinical psychologist Chad LeJeune, Ph.D.
Although worry can help some people prepare better at work, too much worry can produce anxiety, paralyse productivity and problem solving and cause problems in relationships.
But you’re not powerless over your worry and anxiety. According to LeJeune, you can move forward. Here, he offers a 5-step model to help you cope, whether you’re an occasional worrier or a full-time worrywart.
Label worry thoughts
According to LeJeune, this step is about identifying “when the phenomenon of worry is happening.” Most worriers have worries around several similar themes, such as health, their job, relationships and finances. Because people see their worries as facts, it can be hard to distinguish a normal thought from a worry thought.
LeJeune says worry thoughts typically happen after you have “what if” thoughts (e.g., “What if I’m terminally sick?” “What if I faint?”). Labelling your worry thoughts lets you know when to apply the model, and helps you start separating yourself from these thoughts.
Let go of control
When you “have a thought you don’t like, your body responds by struggling physically to control it and escape from it. And that intensifies the thought. But LeJeune says, you can slow down the fight-or-flight response and relax the body by using “traditional stress management” techniques. Your goal is to interrupt the urge to stronghold your anxiety and allow acceptance and mindfulness to enter.
What you can do: Breathing deeply and relaxing your hands and all your muscles.
It’s unrealistic to think that we can sail through life without any stressors, he says. This perspective also sets people up for more anxiety, he adds, and puts a lot of pressure on yourself.
Accept and observe thoughts and feelings
Look at your worry thought instead of “looking through it,” LeJeune says. Begin viewing these thoughts as “separate from yourself,” he says. You remind yourself that your thoughts are not reality. They’re not actual events. Separating thoughts from reality is called “cognitive defusion” in ACT.
There are various defusion exercises that can help. For instance, let’s say that you have a fear of earthquakes, and you’re in California for the first time. Not surprisingly, you’re on edge, and every time you hear a loud noise, you think it’s an earthquake. One way to accept and observe this worry thought is by imagining an earthquake gnome, LeJeune says. Imagine the earthquake gnome saying the worry thoughts in a squeaky voice. You might say, “He’s not very smart. I’m not going to listen to him.”
You aren’t trying to rid yourself of these thoughts but you’re trying to distance yourself from them.
Be mindful of the present moment
Mindfulness means “getting out of your head” and “being aware of your immediate surroundings,” using all your senses. LeJeune gives a brilliant exercise you can try: Picking a colour, like red, and for the next two minutes, you will notice everything that’s the colour red. That will automatically get you out of your head.
The importance of being mindful, LeJeune writes, isn’t to distract yourself. It’s to support observing your thoughts and accepting them.
Proceed in the right direction
Worry takes us out of the moment and away from connecting with the way we want to move forward. We become focused on what could happen that we find ourselves placating our anxiety. The key is to make conscious choices based on your values. Values move people forward, and give us a rationale or purpose for proceeding, even while anxiety is present. When you focus on anxiety, it’s like you’re steering the boat with a barometer, which provides you with the weather, not the direction. Use your “value compass”, and you will know where you’re going, “even if the water is rough or the weather is dicey” (or you’re experiencing anxiety or difficult emotions).