“I’ve lived through a thousand tragedies, none of which actually happened.”
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
Reading these quotes from Mark Twain causes me to grin as I realize he is describing worry. The quotes also cause me to recognize that many of us struggle with worry without actually knowing where worry comes from and how we respond to it.
So, where does worry come from?
To begin, the amygdala (located in our brain) scans the outside world for danger and reacts to a quick first assessment of the possibility of danger. It errors on the side of caution and sets off warnings if there is the slightest risk. In the case of true physical danger, it can save your life. In the case of worry, the initial assessment was an inaccurate picture of the actual situation. The brain believes danger exists even when no physical threat is present.
This scan, for children, helps them to learn that even though worry is the first thing on the scene it isn’t always the most accurate. They can challenge it and do some fact checking to find an accurate assessment. As adults we can help them learn this skill by challenging their thoughts on worry and create for them a secure environment.
How do I manage worry?
Ask questions instead of telling yourself or someone they shouldn’t be worried. This helps you and the person discover the truth of the environment. What is worry telling you about this situation? What do you think is true? Do you think that will really happen? Is there something else you think might happen?
Say something like “worry is playing a trick on your mind making you feel like the situation is dangerous even when it is safe.” This puts the problem on worry instead of yourself or the person.
Do a reality check. Two of the thinking errors most commonly associated with anxiety are overestimating the threat of the bad thing happening and underestimating our ability to cope with it if it does. Write down the worst possible outcome, the best possible outcome, and the most realistic outcome. Then imagine yourself dealing with each outcome. This will decrease worry.