We all have them. They are those nagging worry thoughts that flood into our minds, causing us to react with “fight or flight” chemicals coursing through our veins. None of us are immune to having them. They’re the thoughts that drag us through the proverbial mud of potential fear and panic.
How realistic though, are those thoughts really and, are they really helping us?
Worry is something we can tend to do as a possible solution to what our minds cook up as potential problems. These thoughts assume that we need to somehow counter something that could happen in the near or distant future lest we end up in trouble. They are an attempt to foresee every imaginable and possible scenario that might occur so that we can come up with a solution before it even happens but, are they helpful in reality?
In Cognitive Therapy, the assumption is that our emotions are created by our thoughts. If we change a thought, we’ll change an emotion.
For example, let’s take a look at a possible scenario and see how thoughts might be influencing our emotions.
Two friends are about to throw a party for a mutual friend. Both are busy with preparations for it and both were looking forward to surprising their friend. They’ve got everything they need and are setting up the backyard with decorations and putting together tables for food and drinks. They have everything well planned but, suddenly….Laura starts to think that perhaps, the food and drinks aren’t going to be enough. Sarah goes on decorating and setting up, music turned on, singing while Laura, doing the same things as Sarah, is starting to get a knot in the pit of her stomach. Her hands are going cold, her face is draining of its colour, she’s feeling herself start to shake and stops doing what she is doing.
Sarah: What’s wrong?
Laura: I don’t think we’re going to have enough food and drinks. We should have gotten more of both.
Sarah: There’s PLENTY of food and drinks here. What are you talking about?
Laura: I don’t think so. What if someone is lactose intolerant? They can’t eat the pizza.
Sarah: So…they eat the burgers or wings. Big deal.
Laura: What if it rains? There’s not enough room to take everyone inside? We should have gotten a tent!
Sarah: There’s not a cloud in the sky and I checked the forecast last night. There’s no rain predicted.
Laura: Yeah, but what if it does? What are we going to do with everybody?
Sarah: Oh for heaven’s sake. We’ll move it into the garage and the house. It’s NOT going to rain!
Laura: There’s only one washroom. What if everyone needs it at the same time?
Sarah: So, people wait. What’s the big deal?
Laura: No one will have a good time. They can’t eat or drink or go to the washroom and we might be crowded into the garage or the house! This is going to be a crappy party and Kathy is going to hate it! Everyone will hate it! No one will enjoy themselves!
Laura goes on with a plethora of negative “what ifs” and is practically curled up in a ball on the grass, totally incapacitated by the worry thoughts that she’s coming up with in abundance. Now, even the decorations don’t look right to her, the wind has blown some of the table cloths off of the table and she’s convinced it’s going to rain and spoil everything in spite of there being no sign of rain anywhere. She’s a mess, feeling sick and wanting to go and lay down.
Sarah on the other hand, finishes the decorating, puts out the food and drinks and greets the first guests with a happy greeting, feeling really great about the entire party.
The party goes wonderfully with everyone enjoying it except Laura who is still wracked with “what ifs” that have extended beyond food, drink and rain gone onto everything and anything. She has become a total train wreck emotionally, unable to enjoy the party.
What was the difference between Sarah enjoying the entire process and party and Laura who couldn’t wait for it all to be over, hoping that nothing would go wrong?
Sarah’s mind went to what was going right and though she was doing just as much as Laura was, she was enjoying the whole thing from setting up and the whole party.
Laura’s mind, on the other hand, same circumstance, same surroundings, same everything, went off track to all of the frightening scenarios and caused her to become a nervous wreck and miss out on the fun that Sarah, their friend and everyone else had that night.
Two people had the same experience, same circumstances and yet both of them had very different experiences emotionally because of their thoughts.
Worry is caused by thoughts that have little, if any basis in reality except in our minds. Worry thoughts are an attempt by our minds to prevent potential issues that it thinks it can foresee as a possible issue to be dealt with ahead of that event even happening. It is our “coping mechanism” whereby, we think that if we have a solution ready for a potential problem, we can circumvent it happening or deal with it quickly and effectively. Oftentimes, however, this is not only an fruitless endeavour as things rarely happen as in our thoughts but, the variable that can go with it, should it happen, are not what our brains have concocted.
So, how does one at least quieten these thoughts?
Cognitive Therapy helps get to the root of those thoughts by confronting the thoughts, categorizing them and giving us the tools with which to challenge them back into reality. It’s easily self-taught through books or your primary physician may be able to help direct you to some classes where trained therapists can teach us the tools.
In the meantime, there are a couple of things that can be done.
1) Imagine your worry thoughts, being put into a balloon and set free. Watch it drift off into the sky and out of sight. Let it go.
2) Write your thoughts out on paper. Just getting them from your head to paper is a symbolic act of getting rid of those thoughts from your mind which loves to keep track of every single one of them. Once you’ve written them out, tell yourself that you’ve jotted it down and you can therefore, leave it there and if need be, return to them when or if they do crop up.
3) Set aside a “Worry Time” for yourself. Give yourself only a set amount of time…say 20 minutes to a half hour. Do all of your worrying during that time then, give up. Once your time is up for worrying, you’re done. There’s other things to concentrate on.
4) If you have faith in a Higher Power, hand those thoughts over to that Power and let that Power deal with it, having faith that It/He/She has much more ability to deal with the “what ifs” than you do and has your best interests at heart. Control what you can control and leave the rest up to Higher Powers.
5) Write a letter to your rather overactive imagination in your mind and send it on a vacation from worry thoughts.
Here’s one that I wrote to mine.
I know that you mean well with all of your deep thinking and worrying but, seriously…you don’t need to do this. It’s not helpful. All of your worry and upset and frightening thoughts may make you feel as though you’re “foreseeing” any and every possible catastrophe and preparing me for it BUT…in reality…you are simply making me miss out on what Life has to offer in the Good Dept..
As soon as you start bombarding me with all of the “what if” scenarios and frightening outcomes…you do nothing to help me. You simply overwhelm me into incapacity, panic, lack of logical thinking and inability to do what I need to do in other areas of my life.
You are good. You have a very vivid and good set of “problem seeking methods”. You can find problems that aren’t even there! You’re good at it. You’re also very good at making me feel as though everything is covered as you come up with scenario after scenario for me to have to come up with a potential solution for when it’s not even happening and may never. You’re equally good at building mole hills into huge mountains that seem impossible to get past.
What amazes me is that you have the ability to convince me that there’s something negative about to happen at all hours of the night and day, every day. It’s truly dumbfounding how much you have come up with over my lifetime thus far. You’re a hard worker. There’s no doubt in that whatsoever. You never take a break until I’m so exhausted that I have to shut you down. I’ll give you credit for that hard work and never stopping.
However, I must tell you that I’m unable to keep up with you and your thinking. It’s exhausting keeping up with all that you keep throwing into my lap on a constant basis. I can’t come up with solutions for everything that you throw at me. As fast as I think I can solve one thing, you’ve already tossed me ten more.
The real trouble with you is that you’re not being realistic. Only a tiny fraction of what you come up with ever happens and even if they do, there’s variables to them that you didn’t foresee that make the entire set of plans that I’ve come up with to deal with them, useless. it’s usually the things that you haven’t tossed in my direction that comes to pass. I’ve therefore, wasted a lot of energy, time and big chunks of fun that I could have been having by trying to counter the thoughts that you’ve come up with.
Thank you, Mind for being so hard working in trying to help me but, you’re driving me nuts! It’s really ok for you to go have a good long vacation and permanently stop being in over-drive. There’s really no need for you to work this hard. It’s solving nothing and only overworking both you and me.
Actually, it’s ruining my life!
After you’ve done these things, go do something fun and relaxing. You’re not any further ahead by scaring yourself oftentimes, needlessly. You’re actually behind the game and drive yourself to ineffectiveness.
If you want to have a bit more fun…leave the worry behind. At least, that’s the way that I’m beginning to see things from my little corner of life.