Q: I've always had a tendency to worry, but it's gotten worse in recent weeks with everything that has happened in the world. I know worrying doesn't help — what I need to know is how to stop. Help?
Jim: Let's begin by defining some terms. It will help to know exactly what we're talking about before attempting to suggest solutions or cures.
Fear is an intense emotional reaction to a legitimate, present danger.
Anxiety is an intense emotional reaction, usually of dread, to a perceived, anticipated or future danger.
Worry is a nontechnical, nonclinical term for anxiety.
Panic is a negative behavioral reaction to being overwhelmed by fear or anxiety.
Obsession is a persistent, often unwanted flooding of thoughts that is very difficult to control.
Obsession (or even panic) is best addressed with professional assistance; more on that in a moment. But if you're just a garden-variety "worrier," our staff counselors suggest several things you can do to help free yourself from the thoughts and imaginations that seem to be taking possession of your mind.
The first step is to recognize that worry is basically a habit. It's a pattern of thinking that can be summed up in the phrase, "What if?" The problem with "what if" thinking is that it shifts your focus. It pulls you into the future and away from the present. Present-tense fear says, "The house is burning! Run!" Future-oriented worry, on the other hand, says, "What if the house starts to burn tonight when we're all asleep?" It debilitates and paralyzes effective action because it gets the mind stuck on things that haven't yet happened and may never come to pass.
At the most basic level, you need to remind yourself that you can only live in the present moment. There is no alternative. Once you've convinced yourself of this fundamental truth, the challenge is to find practical ways to keep your attention focused on the situation immediately at hand.
Here's a simple technique that you may find helpful. Write the following four questions on an index card:
What are five colors I see right now?
What are five sounds I hear right now?
What are five things I physically feel right now (not emotions, but sensations like "the wind in my hair")?
What do I need to be doing — or thinking about — right now?
Place the card on your nightstand or dresser. When you wake up, go over the four questions to get your brain going in a new direction. After naming those five colors, sounds and sensations, ask yourself what you need to do the moment your feet hit the floor. Go to the bathroom? Put on your robe? Make the coffee? Once you have the answer, go and do that one thing. Don't try to handle the rest of the day right now. Don't get sucked into "what if" thinking. Just make the coffee.
Take your index card with you wherever you go. Review the four questions three to five times a day. Read them again when you get ready for bed at night. Enjoy going to bed instead of fretting about tomorrow. Practice keeping yourself in the moment.
It won't come easy in the beginning, but hang in there. With patience and a little help from the people who care about you, you can change.
If you think it might be helpful to discuss these suggestions at greater length, our staff counselors would consider it a privilege to speak with you over the phone. They can also provide you with a list of referrals to trained therapists practicing in your area. You can contact our counseling department at 855-771-HELP (4357) for a free consultation.
Jim Daly is a husband and father, an author, and president of Focus on the Family and host of the Focus on the Family radio program. Catch up with him at www.jimdalyblog.com or at www.facebook.com/DalyFocus.