Just stop worrying!

Such a simple question but oh so loaded!
I’ve heard it many times in my own life.
‘Stop worrying’.
‘Why are you worrying?’.
‘There’s nothing to worry about!’.

And if only it was that simple. A snap of the fingers and voila, worries gone. So why not so simple? Why does worry grip and roll us over and over, like a crocodile rolling it’s prey in a murky lake? Once we are in the roll, jaws clamped tight around our thoughts, it’s so difficult to detach ourselves, so we roll, faster and faster, further and deeper.

When we were cavemen

And if we look at our brains in evolutionary terms we can see all so easily why worry begets worry. We have evolved to scan for danger, to look for threats, it’s how we’ve survived as a species. We were hunter/gatherers fighting off wild animals and other tribes’ people, searching for food that wasn’t going to poison us and endlessly scanning to ensure we stayed alive.

So bringing that evolutionary wiring of our brains and putting it into our modern society, our brains are just doing what they’ve always done. And often it serves us well, we jump out of the way of a falling branch on impulse, we grab our child from running out in front of a car on the road, we snatch our hand away from the hot plate we touched.

However, the downside of this, is that our brains haven’t caught up with how we live our lives now. This ancient part of the brain that has kept our species alive for thousands of years, is still living in the dark ages!

Treading the same path

When our fight or flight response kicks in, we just jump into action with no hesitation, no critical analysis, our brains don’t give us time to hesitate. It’s primary job is to keep us alive and stop us from injuring ourselves. It can not discern what is life threatening and what is just a scary situation to us – a job interview, a driving test, a presentation at work – none of these are life threatening but our brain thinks they are so acts in exactly the same way. We go into fight or flight mode, the body starts to release chemicals to ready us for our next move, we perhaps sweat or shake or need the toilet all of the sudden.

And each time we are faced with the same situation or something very similar, our brain remembers it from last time and goes through the process again, falling into the same neural pathway in our brains of stress and anxiety and worry. Think of it like a field of tall grass. We walk in a circle over and over until the grass is worn down, we keep walking round and around and the grass turns into mud, over time our repeated walking churns up the mud and makes a groove, which eventually turns into a ditch. And once you are in the ditch, it’s very hard to climb out as you have walked this pathway for so long and the muscle memory is so familiar with it, you fall into the ditch again and again.

When the threats feel real

And I did this. All day, every day, for two years. I replaced one threat with another with another, until my whole day (and night) was one long threat cycle, manifesting into a whole messy heap of unpleasant body sensations as mentioned earlier and often on top of that, paralysing fear (our third threat response – to freeze).

I knew I was doing it, I truly believed all the threats were real, that my thoughts were concrete fact. I didn’t know how to get out of this cycle or even if there was a way to get out of it! I just thought I had to live with it.

That was until the wheels completely fell off and I found myself uncontrollably sobbing to my GP. I had dropped two stone, I wasn’t eating properly, my sleep was plagued with vivid dark dreams and I was finding it increasingly hard to cope. I was, at this point, diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I felt ashamed, like a complete failure and was completely paranoid about being judged by my diagnosis. It took nearly three years to be able to talk about it. It took six months to even tell my family and closest friends!

Forging new pathways

But with help and support, I started to climb out of the ditch, I forged new neural pathways, I learnt not to always believe my thoughts, I started to place space between myself and my thoughts so I wasn’t being dragged around by them.

And it started with this process.

Awareness and acknowledgement – sometimes we get ourselves into thought patterns of worry and we are so engrossed in them (remember our crocodile) that we don’t realise we are even doing it. So whenever you feel yourself going down the worry road, stop, be aware that’s where you are going and acknowledge this is actually happening. It is useful to label the thought – perhaps be playful with it – ah there you are again worry, I see you, I have noticed you, but I’m not following you…

Taking the pause – once we have acknowledged where we are in this moment, we need to create space between us and the thought. To detach ourselves from it’s grasp we can do something very simple – breathe. Might sound ridiculously simple, but following our breathing pattern helps us to slow it down, gives us a point of focus that is not the worry and physically calms our nervous system.

Staying neutral – when we keep repeating the same patterns it can become very frustrating for us and so we become angry and judgemental with ourselves. We start with the self-criticism, the negative talk and we layer what is already a stressful situation with more stressful thought. It’s called the second arrow. So when we feel ourselves doing this, be kind. Would you talk to a friend in need like this? Doubtful, so try to soothe your own thoughts with compassion and kind words. Reach out to a friend who can give you support, write some kind words down in your journal, come back to the breath. Don’t allow your mean self to take over what is truth.

Thoughts not facts – and this leads me nicely on to my next point. When you realise that thoughts are just thoughts, not the truth, it’s very empowering. Why? Because you have a choice. A choice as to whether you want to agree with them or whether you discard them and choose another thought. This takes practice and self-reflection but stepping back and asking yourself, is this true? Is there another way to think about this? This immediately moves you away from the grip of the thought itself.

You choose – finally, you choose where you want to go next. You’ve brought awareness and acknowledged where your mind is going, you’ve taken the pause and breathed through it, you’ve kicked ‘mean you’ to the kerb and you’ve investigated the thought to ascertain if there is another way to think about this. And now action, where do you want to go from here? Straight back into the worry? Not ideally! So choose something else. A meditation practice, a journaling exercise, a brisk walk in nature (which can bring you so much positive stimulation if you focus on your senses when you are out and about – a blog for another time!), a call with a friend, even something as simple as making a cosy cup of tea and having a 10 minute sit down with a cuppa and your favourite book or magazine. Something to shift the gears, to change direction.

So what if I just stopped worrying?

And perhaps bringing ourselves right back to the original question posed, ‘what if I just stopped worrying?’. What would that cost me? What difference would worrying or not worrying make? Overall, when making a choice, think about your energy – where do you want to place it or where do you want to waste it?

I want to leave you with a poem by Portia Nelson.

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

I walk down another street.