My mother always used to say that the best part of a holiday was coming home and finding that the house had not burned down. The pleasures of the holiday were largely obscured by this unfounded worry. There had never been so much as a stray spark from an electrical item in the house, but she was a veteran worrier.
I’m the same. I’m a freelancer who worries constantly that I might never work again – despite having managed to put food on the table for more than 20 years. I have good friends, but worry that something I said might have offended them. I’m a competent adult who has travelled all over the world but, before each trip, I worry that the flight will be cancelled, that the hotel won’t accommodate us, that snow will scupper our plans…
Worry can be a useful problem-solving activity – that’s its point; it leads us to think about strategies and solutions for dealing with a given situation. But chronic worriers do it to excess, letting it eat away at them, giving them indigestion, fatigue, aches and pains, allowing it to affect their relationships and sometimes spiral into depression.
‘Don’t worry, it might never happen,’ chirp low-level worriers, but it’s not that simple – not if your brain is hardwired to worry in the way mine seems to be. I’m what they call a born worrier, but I’m told it is possible to worry less by making small, positive changes to rewire your brain. I decide to give it a go.
The first step is to ditch the ‘born worrier’ moniker, says Graham Davey, professor of psychology at Sussex University and author of The Anxiety Epidemic (Little, Brown, £14.99). ‘There’s no such thing as a born worrier, and labelling yourself as such will make it much more difficult for you to change. Just as the pathological gambler explains their addiction by claiming to be a born gambler, so too do chronic worriers. But it’s just an excuse to justify behaviour they can’t control.’
So, no more excuses, but perhaps a little understanding.
The fret family
First, the difference between worry and its sister, anxiety. Worry, I learn, is focused in our heads; it’s verbal and specific: we worry about something in particular, whereas anxiety is felt in our bodies and is more general, unspecific and often less reasonable.
The two processes stem from different parts of the brain: worry and problem-solving come from the cortex and anxiety, which helps us deal with threats and challenges, from the amygdala. Usually, worry is temporary but can linger, especially if exacerbated by anxiety. ‘Anxietybased worry tends to occur mainly when someone is in a negative mood, which prolongs the worrying state,’ says Davey. ‘So, the next step is to do things that combat negative moods.’
In theory, this is easy. Laughing, dancing and exercising are proven mood enhancers, he says. I can tick the exercise box. I walk everywhere and swim regularly, both activities that reduce anxiety in the amygdala, as well as making the body better able to cope with it.
I haven’t been out dancing in who knows how long, but you don’t need a big night out to reap the benefits – shimmying while cleaning will do. Since talking to Davey, I’ve been starting my day unloading the dishwasher to Don’t Stop Me Now. The Queen song has been identified as one of the most effective mood-raising pieces of music and, while I feel daft, it does put me in a good mood – and my children, who find it hilarious!
‘Project stop worrying’, makes me realise my kids are better at finding things funny than I am. I have a good sense of humour but, my son points out, when we sit down to watch 8 Out Of 10 Cats – ‘you never actually laugh’. He’s right; I drift off into my own worry-filled world. This is basic mindfulness of course, but it doesn’t come naturally to worriers, so I make a conscious effort.
An expert opinion: laugh through worry
It feels a bit strange at first: forcing myself to watch properly – but it works. I find myself relaxing, chuckling long after the show has finished, instead of thinking about the patch of damp on the wall of the sitting room that appears to be spreading daily and might mean we can never, ever sell the house! It’s not just mood-boosting laughter that helps, but anything that distracts from worrying: watching a film, reading, chatting to a friend, playing a game or skydiving, if that’s not too worrying a prospect.
Worries divide into two types: unfounded and reasonable. Worrying about being attacked by a hammerhead shark while swimming in the North Sea – because I read a report saying that, if global warming continues, there is a possibility they might enter UK waters – is pointless. It truly might never happen. But worrying that my neighbour’s dog (which bit me when I cycled past recently) might go for me again is reasonable.
This kind of worry requires ‘exposure therapy’. In Rewire Your Anxious Brain (New Harbinger, £13), authors Catherine Pittman and Elizabeth Karle write that rather than avoiding situations you are anxious about, you need exposure to them. ‘While cognitive behavioural therapy can help cortex-based worrying, for rewiring to occur in the amygdala, you need to experience the stimuli that create anxiety, in order to activate the neural circuitry that holds the emotional memories you want to modify.’ In layman’s terms, get back in the saddle!
Erase the source of worry
Earlier this year, I was offered a trip to Spain on a ferry. I’d not been on one since sailing to Cork in a storm 20 years ago. The crossing was rough, I was sick and, the following week, the same ferry caught fire. So, while a weekend in Santander was tempting, I worried about sailing.
My husband suggested his own form of exposure therapy; we’d take a boat trip to the wind farm a few miles offshore from where we live. I was less worried about that and, in the end, I enjoyed it. After this practice run, I bit the bullet and curled up in my cabin for the night as we crossed the Bay of Biscay – and was delighted to find that the worries I’d had about spending the weekend worrying about the return journey were gone.
But it is from the example of a friend that I learn most starkly that our capacity to worry is much more to do with mindset than the level of threat. Last year, she underwent treatment for cancer. Now, a lump suggests it might have returned. ‘You must be so worried,’ I say to her.
‘Not right now,’ she replies, ‘I allow myself designated “worry time”. If I start at any other time, I tell myself to stop and worry about it in worry time.’ I try it and, after a few days, I find myself worrying a lot less.
The next time I see my friend, she has been told the lump was just a cyst – and she has another tip for me.
‘There are always two sides to a worry. You worry about losing your passport when you go away [this is true]. I think that, if I do, it will be a an adventure.’ I add ‘reframe worries’ to my list of preventative measures and my friend acts as my coach: I teach, and worry about not being able to answer students’ questions. ‘Don’t,’ she says. ‘Think about all the stuff you do know and are able to share. Anyway, not knowing the answer to a random question isn’t worth losing sleep over.’ And yet…
My worst time for worrying is 3am. I’m quite good at stopping when I go to bed – a bath and reading free my mind – but, come the wee hours, worry is back with a vengeance. Is the rain coming in through the window? Am I prepared for the talk I have to give tomorrow? Is global warming going to wash away our house?
Worrying at night
‘Worrying at night leaves you tired, which has a knock-on effect,’ says Davey. ‘A solution is to keep a pen and paper next to your bed and write down your worries. Transferring them to paper will get worry out of your head, to be dealt with later.’
I try it. Mostly, the things that keep me awake look ridiculous in the morning. Do I really think my slight chest wheeze is heart failure? Or that my mother will never speak to me again because I didn’t have time to return her phone call yesterday?
At the end of the week, I discover my daughter’s input on my note pad: ‘Don’t worry, be happy!’ she has jotted. When you set your mind to it, a lot of the time, it’s actually that simple!
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