Dear Dr. Norquist:
I’ve always been an anxious person but lately it’s getting worse. I worry that bad things could happen to my children and grandchildren. I worry my daughter could lose her job in this economy and then they couldn’t pay the mortgage. I worry about my grandchildren that they could take a wrong turn and start using drugs or get in the car with someone who has been drinking. My daughter was coming to visit me the other day and she was late and I was consumed by all kinds of worries about what could have happened to her. My husband of 50 years died suddenly two years ago and my worrying has increased a lot since then. It’s hard to sleep sometimes, when I’m not sure that everyone is safe. I thought I’d ask you for your advice on what I can do about this. It’s becoming more and more of a problem for me.
Dr. Norquist responds:
I’m glad you are reaching out for help. Excessive worrying saps the joy out of life. It can take control of your thoughts and behaviors and become an unwelcome and unhealthy guiding force in your life.
It sounds like the sudden loss of your husband was like pouring gasoline on your smoldering worry habit. This is a natural response to sudden unexpected (traumatic) loss. When we experience something painful or traumatic, the natural response is to brace ourselves and to do everything we can to prevent ourselves from re-experiencing that pain. To various degrees life can start to revolve around trying to protect ourselves from ever going through that powerful experience again. We become fearful and vigilant – trying our best to protect ourselves by anticipating any possible painful loss that might be coming our way. In this way, our minds naturally start to focus on horrible things that could happen to our loved ones.
Fear leads to a rush of adrenaline, increased heart rate, shallow breathing, muscular tension, and a lack of mental clarity. To help yourself in managing these fears, you can start by noticing when these physical sensations arise. Notice how your body responds to anxious, worrisome thoughts. Do you tense certain muscles? Do you hold your breath? Does your mind race? Get to know your particular physiological response so that you can remind yourself to focus on relaxing as soon as you notice your particular fear-induced physiological sensations. To initiate the relaxation response, start by taking several deep, slow, rhythmic breaths. Feel your abdomen expand and contract. Try to make your exhalation longer than the inhalation. For example, try inhaling for four counts, holding your breath for four counts, and exhaling for six counts. Do this until you feel your body relax. Alternatively tensing and then suddenly relaxing your muscles will also help you to experience relaxation in your body.
Once you have practiced relaxation, focus on consciously diverting your thoughts from whatever you were worrying about. This takes practice, and a search to discover what works for you in diverting your attention. It could be an uplifting phrase, a prayer, an image or a book. It could be your favorite song, focusing on a positive memory, something humorous, or even an exercise that requires attention and or exertion. Make a list of thought diversions and have it on hand so you can choose the best alternative given whatever situation you find yourself in.
The more you worry, the more entrenched this habit becomes and the more joy and inner peace are shut out of your life. Negating this worry habit requires noticing when you are worrying, practicing relaxation and consciously using your will to divert your thoughts to something positive and uplifting. The mind is a tool that can be used to bring you down or to lift you up. The choice is always yours.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.)Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2014 Chaitanya Counseling Services