Bracing Ourselves with Worry

I suggest that by worrying we are trying to brace ourselves against the emotional shock that would accompany a calamitous event, only by making a habit of this we are consigning ourselves to a life of stress: 600 words.

For much of my life I was a champion worrier. When I was about 4 or 5 years old my teacher gave me the Mister Men book, Mr Worry, so clearly the writing was on the wall for me from an early age. It was a nice gesture from my teacher, but it would take more repetitions of the basic lesson in this story about needless and excess worry for the message to finally sink in. (I just watched an animated version on YouTube and it actually doesn’t end all that well, which is worrying.)

Why Worry?

Worry can be consider a mental way of bracing ourselves for the emotional shock that would accompany what we perceive to be a calamitous event, and it is thought that worriers are particularly sensitive to such spikes in emotion. To see how this works, let’s represent the event by the bursting of a balloon, and the worrier by a relative of mine who is particularly sensitive to loud noises. I’ve seen him visibly tense up at the prospect of a balloon bursting, and he cannot relax while this is a possibility.

Bracing ourselves in this way is a natural response to the potential for physical shock, and would likely protect us from more serious injury should that shock eventuate. Worry is often an attempt to anticipate negative events, and generate solutions to deal with those events. So in this way it can be thought of as mentally preparing ourselves—bracing ourselves—for the consequences.

This all sounds great, but if we are sensitive to the possibility of something, anything, going wrong, then we must work extra hard to prevent this. Hence we must keep worrying, constantly bracing ourselves for the moment we have to deal with the next mishap, whatever that may be. Many things in life can go wrong, and these potential negative events—anything from a minor mishap to a great disaster—are like a room full of balloons. There is always uncertainty over when one of these balloons will burst, so the worrier spends their days bracing themselves for this.

The Cost of Worrying

The cost of all this worrying is experienced physically with symptoms of tension and stress, much like you would expect when bracing for a physical shock. And being on edge all the time makes the worrier easy to irritate, like a mouse trap ready to snap. And it’s exhausting being constantly on guard: they say there’s no rest for the wicked, but also none for the worrywart. And how can anyone concentrate when they constantly have things on their mind? And with all that thinking, there’s very little time for action: not much is getting done, which when you think about it, is a bit worrying. Even writing about worry is tiring and repetitive.


So what can we do? It’s a good start to recognise what’s happening: that by always preparing ourselves for occasional moments of acute emotional pain, we are guaranteeing ourselves the chronic emotional pain of stress and anxiety. We can ask ourselves whether this is really a worthwhile trade off. And if we decide it is not, then we must first accept that from time to time we won’t be fully prepared for a negative turn of events; but then we can travel through life a lot lighter*. And if this is unconvincing, there are a variety of quite practical ways to reduce our worry. But this post has been long enough, so they’ll have to wait for another day. Don’t worry, I’ll get to it.

(*In another post I make a similar point using a different analogy.)

The Return of Anxiety

After overcoming anxiety, it may nevertheless return unexpectedly. This article explains why, and why you needn’t panic: 790 words.

After the Christmas holidays I returned to work at  my university, taking the train as usual, then walking a short way through Sydney’s Inner West to my office. I used to walk with the majority of students and staff, only I like to walk briskly, and most people take it easy. I felt like a Formula One driver trying to work his way up from last place on the grid; so eventually I chose a different route, cutting through the engineering faculty to avoid the crowds. However, on this first day back I mysteriously reverted to my original route, and only realised what had happened as I was half way along. I chuckled a little, recognising that I had fallen victim to a significant phenomenon relevant to my clinical work, especially related to anxiety.

When we overcome anxiety, we usually learn that what we feared is unlikely to eventuate, or even if it does, it will not be as bad as we thought. An effective way to achieve this insight is to face our fears often enough that our emotional system learns the reality that perhaps our intellect knew all along. For example, the person that fears flying, despite knowing intellectually how safe this mode of transport is, will, by taking enough flights, learn emotionally that there is little to fear about flying. (This method of treating anxiety is called exposure.)

Except some people, after learning not to fear flying, will turn up to the airport one day and be overcome by fear again. Why? Well, we know from extensive research that old learning is not erased: it turns out that what is learned cannot be unlearned, so that our fear of flying, for example, never goes away. But we are able to learn something new that competes with our fear – in this case, that flying is a very safe way to travel. These two nuggets of knowledge compete for influence over our emotions and subsequent actions (whether to fly or not to fly). And a significant factor that can weaken new learning about our anxieties is a change in context compared to when we first learned these facts. This context can be the place, the people involved, or even the time – anything about the circumstances in which we learned to no longer fear something.

So we learn to not fear flying, but after a few months we might then think… “that was then, but this is now: perhaps its no longer safe to fly”. Or, “I felt safe on xyz airline, but this is abc airline – maybe it’s not safe with them”. Or, “I was okay when I flew with my friend, but now I’m alone, so perhaps its not safe after all”. None of these thoughts need be conscious, but there is nevertheless some doubt about feeling safe, so anxiety returns.

This is similar to what happened to me that first day back at work. After a couple of weeks off my brain decided to revert to an old habit-old learning if you will-which caused me to walk an old and less convenient route. When our anxiety returns we are simply walking an old route, but the good news is that the new route is still fresh in our mind, and research has shown that we can return to this route with less effort than it originally took to forge it.

A clever analogy taught to me by a former colleague (Jess), is to think of your existing fear as a wide track through a thick forest. Overcoming this fear requires you to laboriously push your way through virgin forest, making a new track, one that leads to a feeling of safety. At first this is very hard work, but over time you push back the plants and firm the ground, making it easier and easier to travel this route. And all the while the old route, which led to fear and anxiety, is becoming overgrown from lack of use. But it will never quite disappear, so it may be that some days, depending on the circumstances,  you might accidentally travel back down your old trail, ending up in a fearful place. This is perhaps inevitable, but just as certain is that our new track is still available; and we can, after realising what has happened, decide again to choose the route which leads to that sense of confidence we get from facing our fears.

So, if you find yourself beset by fear once again, remember that this is just a wrong turn. Retrace your steps, and pick up where you left off. You’ll find your sense of confidence will return more easily the second (or third, or fourth…) time around.

Finance Analogies: Don’t Over-insure Yourself

A finance metaphor illustrating the cost of trying to eliminate all risk from our lives, and presenting an alternative to this: 480 words.

Here’s another go at finding commonality between my former career in finance and my work as a psychologist.

When we purchase insurance we incur a small cost upfront to eliminate the risk of greater losses later on. That all sounds lovely, only insurance companies earn a profit margin on these transactions, ensuring that in the long run they will earn more in insurance premiums than they will pay out to cover people’s losses. In fact, over a lifetime a large majority of us will claim less in insurance than we will pay out in premiums. So why take out insurance at all? Well, one reason would be if there is a plausible risk of a major loss that you could not expect to cover, such as your house burning down. But aside from these situations, the benefits from insurance are mostly psychological – specifically, we gain peace of mind.

But another way to achieve peace of mind in these circumstances is to take a long term view of risk. If we can accept that over a lifetime there is only a very small chance of ever claiming enough on our insurance to justify it, then we could do away with insurance on all but those big ticket items like a house. Sure, we will have a few occasions when we do have to replace an item that we didn’t insure, but the money we save will most probably more than offset this. But many of us struggle to take this long term view. Our emotions are built to focus on more immediate concerns, and if I’m concerned about my new refrigerator breaking down unexpectedly then I’ll buy that extended insurance to allay my concerns. Consequently many of us over-insure our lives.

But this tendency to over-insure doesn’t only apply to financial transactions. We do the same thing if we always carry an umbrella as insurance against it raining, or when we put in unpaid overtime to prepare for almost every possible question at the next work meeting, or when we take a swath of vitamins each day just in case we pick up a particularly virulent flu virus. The cost of carrying that umbrella may be small, but add that up over a lifetime and then compare it to the odd occasion when we’ll get wet, and it’s likely that we could benefit in the long run from leaving the brolly at home.

My examples may seem trivial, but the risk-averse people amongst us insure almost every aspect of their lives, and in doing so, weigh themselves down with the burden of all that insurance. If that is you, then try and take a long term view of the risks in your life, learning to accept the smaller risks that you can deal with should they eventuate, (and you can cope with a lot more than you think). Allow yourself a wry smile when you get caught in the odd rainstorm, but remember that you travel lighter nowadays.

Pay Attention! The role of attention in maintaining anxiety.

The role of attention processes in maintaining excess anxiety: 510 words.

A few years ago I bought a car so I could commute to a new job. I showed my new car to my dad, and he took it for a spin. In the coming weeks my dad saw this model everywhere, and was soon convinced this must be one of the highest selling cars in Australia. I know some people in the automotive industry, and he wanted me to call my contacts and confirm his suspicions. But a quick look on the internet was enough to confirm that it wasn’t even in the top 10. What happened here is relevant to understanding anxiety disorders and trauma.

Our attention is drawn to things of importance and relevance to us. Consider the so called ‘cocktail party effect, where you can happily ignore the background noise of a party until someone mentions your name, which suddenly captures your attention. When under threat our attention is drawn to potential signs of danger, which makes sense if we are to keep ourselves safe. Nevertheless, we need only believe a situation to be dangerous to kick-start these processes, and upon entering those situations, our attention is drawn to any possible signs of danger. We become hypervigilant, and as the saying goes, the more we look, the more we see.

You can imagine a person who is afraid of public speaking (which is very common) standing in front of their audience and noticing every yawn, every distracted look and ambiguous facial expression that could represent dissatisfaction with their performance. As they see more potential threat, their anxiety rises, adding to the adrenalin fuelled fight and flight response – beating heart, faster breathing, tingling, shaking and dizziness; just what they needed in the middle of a speech. Even if nothing objectively goes wrong, someone in this state of mind will probably interpret the experience as a near miss, confirming and strengthening their expectations of threat for next time, and so the anxiety continues.

For my father, his son’s new car was of minor importance to him, but his attention was nevertheless directed towards similar cars on the road. For the anxiety sufferer, potential sources of threat are clearly significant, and so their hypervigilance can become a major way in which they sustain the impression that danger is all around. For our attention processes to be useful they generally need to be fast, so they are often automatic and hence out of awareness. And when they go unchecked they can become part of an anxiety disorder in the making.

So becoming consciously aware of these processes is the first step in learning to overcome them. It will take time, but when we feel anxious, we can take notice of what we are noticing, and then consciously develop a more balanced view of our circumstances. If successful, we will learn there is less to fear than we originally thought, and so not be so hypervigilant the next time. In this way we can slowly dissuade our mind from selectively seeking out signs of danger, and begin to take a more relaxed perspective on the world.