Worry can strike fear in the heart! Truly confident people do not have to push worries away to feel good. But if contemplating what worries you increases your anxiety, you are not alone. Wouldn't it be great to gain a sense of calm and clarity even when you have anxious thoughts?
I recently asked a group to imagine their worries and write them down. After many years working with anxious clients, I was only a little surprised by their responses. A few got helpful information. Some could not do it. Others replied with disparaging comments about their worries. Still others made little jokes or recited platitudes about how to manage their worry.
Here are four big reasons that even thinking about worry can be daunting.
When you imagine your worries, you can subconsciously activate your sympathetic nervous system.
Try it for yourself. Write down a few things that you worry about often. Notice how your heart beats faster and harder, your mind becomes less focused, your body may tighten. This is an activation of your sympathetic nervous system. Not surprisingly, when you are in this state, you will naturally feel more vulnerable.
For some people noticing worried thoughts sends them quickly toward depression.
If you have a history of anxiety linked to depressive symptoms, noticing worry reminds your mind and body of sensations that feel like the “slippery slope” into depression. Unfortunately, now you have another worry on top of whatever worry you came up with originally.
You've probably been taught that worry is a “bad” thing.
It’s common to believe that worry as an emotion is generally bad and that it is a weakness to experience it. This internal shaming creates critical messages inside you. So even thinking about worry creates a firestorm of difficult emotions. In order to calm these sensations, you may separate from them by reciting advice, making jokes or crumpling your worry list and throwing it away.
If you're prone to high anxiety, even thinking about worries feels out of control.
If you have unaddressed anxiety, tapping into your worries can spiral into obsessive thinking about everything you fear. In these cases, it makes sense that you’d want to avoid being propelled into this worry vortex. This is similar to #2 except that instead of the fear being about becoming depressed, it is about slipping into more panic or racing thoughts.
You're probably asking “Why wouldn’t I want to avoid my worries?”
Here’s the thing, avoiding worry does not make it better. In fact, it likely makes it worse.
When you face your worries with fear, you miss out on the opportunity to get a lot of valuable information. Since you ignore or even push these feelings away, they end up disconnected from your awareness and this limits your personal insight. Pushing your feelings away contributes to a sense of “lostness” or “numbness” which over time has an enormous impact on your life.
In addition, worries that are ignored or actively pushed away do not go away. They remain as parts of your personality. And because human personalities are amazing and multifaceted, you will develop parts that serve to protect or manage your world to keep you from feeling the worries. Over time, you can feel exhausted always trying to ignore or ward off any triggers for these vulnerable thoughts and feelings. It's common to find worry about worry about worry. The anxiety grows creating significant symptoms like panic, headaches, sleeplessness, depression and so on.
So how can you get acquainted with your worried thoughts without running away in fright?
Here are a couple steps you can try today. Don't push yourself beyond just enough challenge! Be patient and take it in steps. You don't want to scare yourself more.
- Remind yourself that you have many feelings and they are not trying to harm you. In fact, parts of you that hold these emotions need attention, connection and guidance from you. It may sound like a strange concept, so move slowly and have patience.
- Breathe fully and gently to calm your body. Write any small worries on a paper in front of you and look at them as small parts of you, not the whole.
- Get really curious. Breathe and walk away if you feel at all overwhelmed. Allow yourself to walk back, just taking a look at a thought/feeling familiar to you. Think: “Huh! That's interesting!”
- Ask as you look at the worry you’ve written, ask from the perspective of your worry – what does the that part of you believe would happen to you if it did not worry this way? Notice any positive intention of this part of you and offer a bit of gratitude if it’s possible.
Congratulate yourself! You have uncovered a little bit of yourself, a part of you that needs your attention. As you practice bringing more curiosity to your whole internal life – your feelings, memories and body sensations – your confidence and clarity will grow.
There are many more ways you can help yourself live calmly and happily in my book: Calm Your Worries: Unlock Your Secret Code to Lasting Stress Relief & Self-Confidence.