Photo courtesy of spaceodissey
I used to be a chronic worrier.
In fact, I spent the better part of three decades intensely worried about a plethora of highly unlikely disasters.
If you’re a worrier, you’re not alone. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting about 18% of the population. However, just because it’s so prevalent doesn’t mean that it’s ok to ignore your chronic anxiety. Studies show that regular, unsubstantiated worrying will eventually catch up with you, leading to progressive physical and psychological problems as well as interpersonal difficulties.
When worrying began to manifest itself in the form of physical damage to my body, I put my foot down and called a therapist. Getting a handle on my anxiety was something I had to do before I could move toward the life I really wanted.
The first thing you should know about what feels like uncontrollable worrying is that there’s a scientific explanation for it. While observing their patients’ PET scans, physicians have noted that the orbital cortex of the brain goes into overdrive during periods of anxiety.
The orbital cortex is the underside of the front of the brain. Feelings of worry stem from a slight abnormality in this area, leading it to “overheat” or simply overwork itself. In other words, your orbital cortex is easily aroused, which sounds a lot more fun in theory.
Suppose a thought enters your mind, such as, “Why do I have such a headache?” For the chronic worrier, faulty beliefs about this thought will quickly take over. “My headache is worse than normal. I probably have a brain tumor. I should see a doctor at once.”
Anxious people have an extremely tough time letting go of these thoughts because their orbital cortex becomes aroused so easily. It lights up quickly, generating heat and energy, causing the worrier to become stuck in the worry cycle without being able to move forward past the feelings of anxiety. The non-anxious patient may experience the same thought process, even fleetingly pondering that the headache may be a brain tumor, but is able to recognize the thought as irrational, letting go of it before it becomes a worry.
Many worriers develop techniques to ease their anxieties, which may sound like a good thing, but these “neutralizing rituals” are typically quite disruptive to the worrier’s lifestyle, and can cause problems in relationships and at work.
Luckily, it is possible to cool down your orbital cortex and get your worries under control. The technique that worked best for me, and the treatment that is most widely-used for anxiety disorders is called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
During this type of self-therapy, you’ll examine your thoughts (cognitions) and take back control over your reactions (behaviors) to the thoughts. Some basic steps include:
1. Cognitive Restructuring - This involves identifying your specific fears that are the most irrational and most destructive and then persistently asking yourself for evidence that your fears are legitimate.
2. Fear Facing - Sometimes referred to as ‘exposure therapy,’ this component of CBT is necessary because avoidance of your fears will prevent you from ever overcoming them.
3. Thought Replacement - Some therapists advise their anxious patients to come up with more accurate thoughts or relaxing mantras after specific fears are identified. I experienced the most success when I turned my anxious thoughts into cartoons, amplifying their absurdity. My therapist also suggested speaking irrational thoughts aloud, or singing them to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell” or another familiar children’s song. For me, this works every time.
For many people, obsessing about irrational fears is a habit that they’ve been developing for years and years. It may take quite some time to break out of the worry cycle, but it can be done with some practice and a lot of dedication. Anyone who is willing and ready to make an effort can get control of their worries. Nobel Prize winner Winston Churchill suffered from anxiety, but went on to lead an extremely successful life. To quote him, ”When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life — most of which had never happened.”