4 wonderful ways to wipe away worrying
Drag your thoughts away from your troubles by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it! (Mark Twain)
Worrying is a word that comes from an old English expression meaning to strangle. That’s an appropriate connotation, because worries can certainly strangle the life out of you.
Persistent, chronic worrying can turn into an uncomfortable habit that’s hard to get shot of, like an old pair of shoes that have become cracked or misshapen, so that wearing them is actually harmful, but you’ve worn them for so long it’s hard to bring yourself to get rid of them.
Chronic worriers even worry when they have nothing to worry about! Some feel that if they don’t worry then they are tempting fate. One guy I worked with felt that it was his worrying (rather than, say, jet propulsion) that kept the plane in flight whenever he flew. He said “I feel like if I don’t worry, something bad will happen!”
Worrying is not harmless. It has consequences. The more we worry, the more stress hormone we produce and the more we dream at night. In turn, over-dreaming caused by unresolved worry can cause clinical depression (something else to worry about!).
The role of the imagination
Chronic worrying (which most of us will fall into to some extent at times) has been called a thought disorder. But it’s more a misuse of the imagination. Imagination disorder may not sound quite so clinical, but is possibly more accurate. Imagination is not just all in your head. It has measurable, palpable effects, physical and behavioural.
Chronic jealousy, for example, is a classic misuse of the imagination. Jealous people, often with no real grounds, may imagine all sorts of negative things about their partner’s actions and intentions. This can significantly raise their blood pressure (evidence of the hypnotic power of the imagination to affect the body). It may even lead them to commit terrible crimes, all because they buy into the scenario created by their imagination.
Hypnotherapy, of course, works in the same way but to positive ends. We use the imagination in hypnosis to alter physical phenomena. For example, improve immune response, take away pain. And behavioural responses, for example, help someone stop smoking.
The common denominator is the imagination, and whether a person uses it constructively or destructively.
So how do you get yourself out of the being caught up in chronic worrying and use your imagination more productively? Here are four powerful tips.
1) Get distance on the worry
I’ll often talk about how we are capable of imagining absolutely anything, but whether we buy in to what we imagine is another matter altogether. Stephen King uses his imagination (as do many writers) to create terrifying scenarios, but he produces all these scary ideas without being scared witless by them himself. He can clearly separate himself from what he is imagining.
Simple as it sounds, this is often a completely new idea for many worriers. As I’m typing this, I can quite vividly imagine the ceiling caving in on top of me while not believing for one second that it’s going to happen (fingers crossed).
So rather than trying to get yourself not to think about it – possibly the most useless advice ever – just relax deeply while imagining what normally scares you.
In effect, you are asking yourself to worry without feeling worried. I have found this to be surprisingly easy and effective.
And when you can hypnotically see your worries in the distance -over there- while feeling ever so relaxed over here. I might even prescribe set doses of worrying while relaxed for the chronic worrier to take between sessions.
Emotion is the neon sign yelling “Pay attention to this!” and when you diminish the emotion, the old worrying thoughts become much less compulsive.
2) Organise the worrying
There’s nothing like a timetable for bringing things under control.
Worry tends to be intrusive, to gate crash your head when you’re trying to enjoy yourself or concentrate on something. Prescribing worry time is a neat way of prescribing the symptom and organising this destructive use of the imagination as a prelude to getting rid of it once and for all.
(Of course, being able to worry sometimes is useful for all of us, so perhaps we won’t get rid of it completely – just keep it in its place.)
When you select a specific time of day to sit down and do nothing but worry for a specific period, you give yourself permission to defer worrying.
When they a troublesome thought occurs, say to yourself: “Okay, there’s a worrying thought. I’ll worry about that in my worry time, not now.”
Setting up a fixed period, no longer than 20 minutes for worrying soon shows you that worrying doesn’t have the hold over you that you thought. When you must do it for 20 minutes, it gets harder and harder to do – thus transforming itself from something that you can’t help doing to something that is a real nuisance to keep up.
3) Write down solution steps
Worrying that doesn’t lead anywhere is like a dog chasing its tail!
It’s been shown that writing about emotional issues lowers stress hormone levels, perhaps because writing requires us to use other (less emotional) parts of the brain. But to be really effective writing needs to be more than just venting.
So get yourself to begin using this practical writing technique:
List write down, exactly and clearly, just what you are fearful of, making as full a list as possible
Split mark each item on the list in such a way as to show if it is soluble, or insoluble. For example, worries about situations that cannot be immediately changed, or concerns over the unchangeable past.
Steps copy all the soluble items into a single column on one side of a page and note down beside each item in the next column some practical steps that can be taken towards fixing that problem.
Resolve copy all the insoluble items into a single column on one side of another page. Beside each item describe how you would need to feel differently about these issues in order to resolve these worries psychologically. For example, I need to accept that the plane takes off and makes a lot of noise as the engines gather speed and this will always be so.
4) Chuck your worries away
Writing down bad memories, enclosing the paper in an envelope, sealing the envelope and then burning it has been found to influence the memory. In the sense that recollection of the emotional details of an event becomes weaker after this metaphorical act.
I once had a client who told me she was worried about certain things she felt she couldn’t talk to me about. I asked her whether she could write them down so we could dispose of them properly. She did so. I then asked her to take the sealed envelope and put it into her log burner and burn it.
We then talked about those things she did feel able to discuss with me. In a later session, she confided that since doing that ritual she somehow felt much less concerned about those secret worries.
Ultimately, worry should be a tool or a signal that lets us know when something might need addressing. We don’t what to lose this tool completely, but no tool should ever be allowed to enslave its owner.