If you are a chronic worrier, chances are that your friends and loved ones have tried to help you deal with your worries. You probably know they mean the best and want to help, but you have likely found much of their advice to be unhelpful, or worse, it made you worry even more.
Here’s what people have told you to do about your worry and why it’s not working for you:
1. Just ignore the worrying thoughts! Don’t pay any attention to them and they’ll go away.
This advice sounds reasonable, but if you have a fair amount of chronic worry, ignoring it will not work for you.
When you are in a physically worried state (yes, feelings are a physical state!), you cannot switch off your worry. It is not physically possible without doing some work first. Imagine asking someone who is having a seizure to shake it off and get back to work. Worry has a neurological component, and when it is strong, you cannot voluntarily ignore it.
It’s also futile to “ignore the worry” because you have parts of your personality that have been raised and groomed to worry. These parts of you worry as a way to keep you safe. Honest. Believe it or not, they are most likely trying to help!
As your internal protectors, these parts believe that the worry is necessary and that something very bad will happen if they do not worry. Your worrier parts have a lot of drive and energy and are not easily convinced that things will be fine if you ignore them. Therefore, they will turn up the volume of worry in any way they can to keep you safe. Ignoring worry equals louder worry!
2. Don’t be so negative. Look at the bright side and be positive about things.
While this advice on the surface makes all the sense in the world, especially with our understanding of positive psychology, it is far from helpful to you if you suffer from chronic worry. This forced positivity sets up a little battle rather than a soothing situation.
Why? Your body is not physically ready to receive a super-charged positive message. Because worry ignites your sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight or freeze response), an incompatible positive message will be either dismissed, mistrusted, or completely opposed.
Furthermore, the parts of your personality that are really worried feel incredibly threatened by this message. They will tell you all kinds of reasons why it is stupid to be positive, thus reinforcing the worried message even more.
As these difficult feelings increase, your body will feel more and more worried about the conflict happening inside you. This sweet, kind attempt to be positive will feel like waging war against your worrier (who thinks it’s your closest ally). And guess what? You’ll worry about that feeling too.
3. Just distract yourself. Be happy, keep busy, go, go, go….
This could work! (And I know you want it to work, because I did too!) There are times when keeping busy, staying active, working hard, or talking, talking, talking can feel great and give you a break from all that worry.
But you and I both know it’s not that simple. This solution is exhausting to maintain. It eventually leads to more stress. And then—WHAM!—the worry is back, sometimes stronger than before. But why? What is happening here?
Distraction and busyness can feel similar to worry in the body. They are active. They are moving. They are driven. They solve problems. However, when your body and mind eventually demand rest, the unresolved worry will return.
In fact, you may have just found a new thing to worry about: I’m not busy or active enough! Oh no! What can I do? Should I get a treadmill? Should I work all the time? Why can’t I ever just sit and rest? If I rest, am I a lazy person?
This pattern of full activity and then exhaustion can lead to a cycle that feels manic. Why am I always either completely down or completely active? There must be something very wrong with me! And on and on…
In addition, being distracted and staying occupied function as parts of your personality that manage your inside world (feelings) by managing your outside world (doing stuff). So rather than finding calm for the one internal manager, you’ve created more managers. Now you have more parts of your personality trying their best for you by doing stuff and running you into the ground, and you are still not feeling better.
Remember the next time someone offers you “calming” advice that you and your body know best. Listen to your body and get to know your own worry! You hold your key to a calm life.