The Barrie Examiner

Attacking Anxiety
How worrying can be helpful
or get in the way of living life

The Barrie Examiner

Don't worry, be happy.

Those four words may be a neat philosophy but, according to worry specialist Dr. Beverly Potter, they're easier said than done. "I don't like that expression because it suggests that you shouldn't be worrying," says the California author of The Worrywart's Companion.

The trouble with worrying is that it can get completely out of control and has a habit of escalating. Actor/director Woody Allen, a famous worrywart, illustrated this best when he said, "If I get chapped lips, I think it's brain cancer."

Worrying is a kind of "stuckness," Potter told me recently. Or as she writes in her book's intro, worrywarts "get stuck in identifying danger as they immerse themselves in the dread associated with the threat, which may be real or, more likely, imagined."

Don't think worrying is bad for you, she told me. "Think of it as a mental fire drill, a thinking through of things that potentially might happen. It's good to think over what could happen and to have a contingency plan. That is what productive and effective people do."

The problem is that the process generates anxiety. Worrywarts can become melodramatic and waste precious time. As American writer Mark Twain said, "There has been much tragedy in my life. And at least half of it actually happened!" Worrywarts can't live in the here and now.

Chronic worry can evolve into panic attacks, says Potter. "The anxiety generates more worry, then more anxiety, then round and round you go." A twinge in your chest makes you believe you could soon have a heart attack, a news story about a home invasion 200 miles away keeps you up at night because you fear someone will break in when you're asleep.

Learn to stop the worry cycle, says Potter. "You need to understand that just because you feel worried doesn't mean there is anything wrong. It's just your body reacting to those frightening thoughts you are thinking." Worrying is hard to give up, she says.

Like a superstition, worry gives people relief and even reduces anxiety.

One story Potter likes to tell is about two women, one of whom is madly waving her arms about. When the second woman asks her what's she's doing, the first woman replies that she's keeping the tigers away. "But there are no tigers here," the second woman says.

"See," says the woman waving her arms. "It's working!"

Potters book is filled with excellent insight into worry and dozens of practical tips. One point she stresses is that worrywarts catastrophize: Who among us who has a fear of flying can't relate to obsessing, when we have to fly, on the statistically improbable --the plane crashing.

Worrywarts always gravitate to the worst possible scenario, says Potter. "It's like the mother who worries that her son isn't home. She paces and thinks he's been in a horrid accident and he's down in the morgue.

"She never thinks that maybe the opposite has happened: His coach asked him to stay behind while they discuss the fact that a scout was so impressed with him on the field that he wants to offer him a football scholarship."

Learn to worry smart, is her advice. "Smart worriers don't automatically flip into worrying, like a knee-jerk reaction," she says. Smart worriers learn to soothe themselves so that they can bounce back from initial worries. Smart worriers learn "self-talk" -- a kind of inner dialogue in which they talk to themselves the way a friend would, encouraging themselves and challenging extremes.

Smart worriers are hopeful, not hopeless. Smart worriers imagine positive possibilities, limit their worries to worry places or diaries, identify worry triggers, rate their worries on a scale of one to ten, challenge their worries, and learn how to under-react.

Worrying is a style, says Potter.

"You can learn a new habit, but it takes effort. It's easy to fall back into the habitual thinking pattern. Worry begets worry."

The Worrywart's Companion

The Barrie Examiner