The Worry Response transcript
Today’s stren considers the seventh of the eight choices available to our will power to transform information into action. I have labeled it the worry response because it is characterized by our inappropriate preoccupation with the worst outcomes of our action.
The worry action pathway is the major source of excessive anxiety, fear, and phobias, and the reason physicians are excessively consulted about “heart attacks.” In stren #43, coming next, the Mind/Body action pathway, I’ll identify the myriad of physical disorders that are the outcome of prolonged stress. Understanding is a powerful step towards managing the worry response.
Worry is anticipating the worst possible outcomes of a situation. Because our body responds to our mental interpretations in a similar manner to actual material events, inaccurate interpretations result in inappropriate outcomes. Once you learn the formula, the worry response is easy to recognize: We tend to “What if.” We anticipate and create images of the worst outcomes of a situation. What if … the airplane engine fails … the elevator breaks down … they can’t stand my pimples.... What if .... What if .... What if .... “Oh my God, my heart is racing; what if I’m having a heart attack? I can’t stand it.”
The anxiety escalates as our images trigger our physical “emergency response” system to turn on muscle tightness, increased heart rate and breathing, and release of chemicals that signal our body to go into a “red alert” state. Learn to recognize the “What if” and substitute “Most likely...” “Most likely … the airplane will get me where I want to go … I haven’t heard of anyone being permanently stuck or starving in an elevator … people are more concerned about their own appearance than my pimples.” Every time you “What if,” give at least equal time to thinking of the very best, most positive, happy outcomes of a situation, even if they are as unlikely as the negative “What if’s” you create. Smile and enjoy the positive “What if’s.” Various techniques of desensitization training – gradually facing the feared situation, often with some support – are very effective. So is relaxation training, using such techniques as Progressive Relaxation, a method popularized by Edmund Jacobson at the turn of the century, and biofeedback. Medications are commonly used to relieve symptoms. In my opinion, understanding the cause of most worry and anxiety, and teaching ourselves a newer way of thinking to accurately interpret our experience, are the most powerful means of dealing with worry.
Our ancestors lived in a savage, primitive environment where life-threatening danger could occur at every turn. Survival required anticipating danger and being prepared with the emergency response that would preserve their life, usually “fight or flight.” Both fight and flight action pathways require emergency release of the chemicals that produce hyper alertness and extra energy, raise our heart rate and blood pressure, tense our muscles for action, and determine whether we’d eat or be eaten, survive or die. As brilliant as this emergency system was in its design, we rarely have need for this emergency pattern of response. In today’s relatively civilized world our challenges are almost always symbolic, created by our mental power of interpretation. Immediate survival is replaced by such desires as material wealth, social status, physical appearance, self-worth, love, and the values we assign great importance. Our political, religious, and tribal allegiances and ideologies are commonly a source of conflicts that create worry and anxiety. They can certainly result in life-threatening outcomes, but they usually do so gradually, over a period of time, instead of being an instant source of peril.
Yes, sometimes it is difficult to identify the specific “What if” worry statement. Just as some individuals are sensitive to poison ivy or peanuts, it makes sense that some individuals have super-sensitive emergency action pathways that are set off with little provocation. Such individuals need not continue to suffer; they can learn to label the emergency response a “false alarm.” Even though the fire alarm goes off, when we conclude it is a false alarm, we no longer need to panic and run to the exit. Relaxation methods, learning to maintain and restore calm, and various treatment methods can alleviate our excessive self-stressing reaction.
Our language is biased to words that create worry; worry has survival value in a savage environment because anticipating the worst warns us prepare for emergencies. Optimizing or hoping, the opposites of worry, have less survival value in the face of real emergency. “I spent the night worrying” is more familiar than “I spent the night optimizing.” Humor and laughter is absent in animals and was unknown to our primitive ancestors. Resentment has a sixteenth-century usage which literally means re-experiencing any sentiment, but it has come to refer in our modern language only to feelings of anger or hurt over a real or imagined injustice that result in tension. The word doom once referred to any type of fate or destiny, good or bad, but now it means only a terrible one. Our work-in-progress is to continuously update our language to signal better ways to deal with the stresses brought on by modern living.
If you are a worrier, I urge that you regularly substitute “Most likely” for “What if”. Concern, the least amount of energy required to address stress, is preferable to sustained worry. Every time you anticipate the “worst” outcome, practice imagining the most optimistic “best” outcome, no matter how outrageous it seems. Seriously practice applying the common sense problem-solving sentence and self-endorsement mental action way of thinking that is explained in strens throughout this series of tips. You will learn to control the negative mental action patterns which we all use to varying degrees. You’ll love the results.