The Worry Trap — And How to Escape Its Deadly Grip

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The Worry Trap — And How to Escape Its Deadly Grip

By Robert Mantell, Ph.D., C.M.Ht.
©2009 All Rights Reserved.

“Try to relax and stop worrying so much.”
“Mellow out… It’ll all be OK.”
“Why can’t you be more positive?”
“What’s the use of worrying about things you can’t change?”
“Why don’t you just think about something else?”

If you’re one of the millions of people around the world who constantly find themselves worrying, you’ve undoubtedly heard this well-intended advice from friends, colleagues, relatives — even therapists. But of course, you know it doesn’t help. Heck, if that’s all it took to get you to stop worrying, you’d have done it a long time ago.

The good news, however, is that there is an answer for you. There is a way to stop the seemingly endless cycle of worry, fear and uncertainty.

Before we get there, however, it’s important to get clear on just why we tend to worry so much — especially when we know darn well that what we’re worrying about probably won’t — or couldn’t — actually ever really happen.


Yup. There are people who find themselves literally obsessed with worry about things that they’ll actually tell you they know darned well probably couldn’t really ever happen.

Sounds counterintuitive, though, doesn’t it? How is such a thing possible?

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You see, it’s one thing to concern ourselves about events that we believe actually could — or in all likelihood, will — happen at some point in the future. Life is replete with opportunities to worry about things like that. Death, taxes, inability to perform adequately at work, concern about our child’s behavior in school, problems paying the bills, etc., etc. Admittedly, this is certainly the more common form of worry. For most, these people’s concerns could actually be considered fairly reasonable.

On the other hand, a great many people find themselves trapped — even completely incapacitated — by fears of things they actually know, in all probability, couldn’t really happen.

But how is this possible? In other words, if someone actually knows that the odds of this thing they’re concerned about actually happening are infinitesimally small, how is it possible for such a person to be virtually consumed by the worry of it?

Such worries are common for people who have been diagnosed with an anxiety problem known as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or OCD. And you can imagine that this is actually the most difficult form of worry to effectively eradicate — unless you know the secret of how to make that happen.

In this article, I’m going to offer you some powerful tips for how to alleviate chronic worry. But before we do that, let’s get clear on just why you worry so much — and why all the well-meaning advice to “just try to think about something else” will never work.


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So what’s the purpose of worry in the first place? Why do we seem to be able to do it so easily?

Well, for most, worry is a strategy designed to help a person prepare the best they can for a future that they experience as uncertain, fraught with danger, out of control or just plain unpredictable. Such individuals consume themselves with thoughts of all the horrible possibilities that could actually occur in an effort to prepare themselves for any such eventuality. But because the possibilities really are endless, such people continue the pattern of worrying to the point where it becomes chronic and overwhelming — because it actually would take virtually forever to think of all the possible outcomes the future could possibly hold for us!

Of course, no one consciously chooses to cope with fear of the unknown by worrying incessantly about it. Rather, it’s learned as a result of life experience. When there’s no better way to alleviate fear of the unknown — and when the unknown has become sufficiently fearful — the brain will do the best it can to figure out any way at all that might help, even if that way doesn’t actually work. After all, the brain figures, some strategy to deal with fear of the unknown is better than no strategy at all, isn’t it?

The fact is, for many people, this “best way” is a miserable failure. After all, on how many occasions could you honestly say that having worried to death about a problem situation actually led to a useful solution?


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You see, it’s one thing to process, review or curiously examine a problem situation, and it’s quite another to just worry ad nauseum about things you know you ultimately can’t change anyway.

The difference between the more garden variety tendency to worry and the kind of troublesome, relatively therapy-resistant kind of worrying behavior typically associated with OCD is that the former is based on the actual probability that something bad could happen, and that the latter is based on nothing more than the mere possibility — however small — that something bad can happen.

I had a 34-year-old gentleman in my office several months ago, who, although exceedingly successful in material terms, had been haunted by an almost ceaseless fear of being exposed to the AIDS virus for nearly the past 18 years.

As is the case with most such individuals, he was highly steeped in matters of “right” vs. “wrong”, what is “good” vs. what is “bad”, and issues of the sort. He was highly sensitized to circumstances that could lead, in even the slightest possible way, to being exposed to things like blood and other bodily fluids that could possibly contain the AIDS virus within.

Because his personal radar was so highly focused onto such matters, he would come in reporting an impressive frequency of life events wherein he had witnessed, for example, blood on the hand of a waiter, or blood on the finger of a grocery baggage clerk. It was truly amazing how often — simply during the course of normal daily living — he seemed to come into contact with people who just happened to have blood on them!

When asked how this fear was a problem for him, he said the worry of being exposed to AIDS was so overwhelming for him that it monopolized great chunks of his time and energy, stopping him from being able to concentrate on nearly anything else, and robbing him of any ability to be productive in areas that mattered most to him — like business.

So focused was he on issues pertaining to this — so busy was he attempting to worry himself into (hopefully!) the greatest possible preparedness — he had expended enormous amounts of time and energy researching the actual odds of coming into contact with substances that could possibly transmit the AIDS virus.

Of course, he found that the probability of actually contracting the AIDS virus — even if he were to come into contact with some possible transmitting agent — were almost ridiculously small, something on the order of 1 in 10,000.

But did the awareness of such a thing transpiring actually make a difference for this gentleman? Nope.

Of course, you’d think it would. You’d think that the realization that the chances of actually contracting AIDS were nearly nonexistent would help him relax and let go of the overwhelming, all-consuming fear of such an outcome.

But no.

You see, for this gentleman, the mere possibility of such an outcome — however small — was enough to cause him incessant worry about it, to the exclusion of nearly everything else.

We had woman in our office some time later with a similar fear — except that, in her case, the fear was of germs. This, of course, is yet another thing to be feared that one cannot typically see and thus be easily able to protect themselves from. An interesting observation is that most of the things people tend to obsessively worry about just happen to be things that are difficult to determine the existence of, one way or the other.

This woman came to see us with her husband, whom we had asked to join us. This woman’s fears had become so pervasive in terms of its impact in her family that her entire family’s organizational structure had been turned upside down. For example, the family’s seven children were no longer permitted to sleep in their bedrooms or wash in their bathrooms. The family was no longer able to enjoy their free time the way they preferred, so dependent had she become on her family’s willingness to do things for her. The woman had become totally unable to do any housework, so fearful was she of coming into contact with germs. Clearly, there were multiple family-related dynamics supporting the presence of the fear in this woman’s life.

As was the case with the gentleman I mentioned a moment ago, this woman’s fear of something she couldn’t actually see — and therefore could never actually verify as to its real presence or not — completely ruled her (and her family’s!) life. The probability or actual likelihood of being exposed to disease-inducing germs never figured into her perception of whether there actually was anything to fear in the first place. For her, the mere possibility of such exposure was sufficient to virtually incapacitate her.


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So how do you deal with something like this? How do you assist someone to neutralize his subjective experience of fear when no amount of conscious insight or logic will make a difference for him?

Well, one thing’s for sure. It’s not to suggest the person simply try to think more positively. And it’s not to suggest the person simply stop worrying about it, or to try to think about something else. And why not?

Well, have you ever tried to stop worrying about something that you just can’t seem to help worrying about? If so, you know from personal experience why simply suggesting to someone that they forget about it, or that they try to think about something else, can’t possibly work.

Why not?

Well, try this little exercise:

  1. Try not to think about a pink elephant.

  2. And don’t think about a white mouse sitting on top of the elephant’s head.

  3. And whatever you do, don’t think about that white mouse happily bouncing up and down, up and down, again and again, on top of that pink elephant’s head.

So, what happened? What did you notice?

Well, you might have noticed that you can’t not think about what it is you don’t want to think about without thinking about it first.

You’ve probably thought about that before, haven’t you?

In other words, to know what it is you don’t want to think about, you have to first create some sort of internal representation in your mind of whatever that is first. The mere act of doing this forces your attention on the very thing you’re trying so hard not to think about.


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So far, we’ve learned that trying to stop worrying about something that truly bothers you definitely doesn’t work. That only tends to make it worse.

So what do you do instead? Well, believe it or not, one of the most effective ways to cure to habitual worry is to worry more — effectively.

As counterintuitive as that idea seems, it actually works amazingly well. Why? Because of the way our brains are wired.

You see, our brains work on something called The Principle of Economy of Effort. This means our brains will not expend energy on anything it doesn’t believe will be a worthwhile investment of its resources.

The fact is, any behavior repeated over time is only a behavior the brain perceives as somehow benefiting the person. In his outstanding book Life Strategies, the good Dr. Phil calls this benefit a payoff. You see, if the person’s brain perceived no useful benefit to the behavior, the behavior would not continue to be objectified over time. That’s all there is to it.

The act of “chronic worry” certainly thus falls into the category of such behaviors. People only continue the behavior of chronic worry when they’re getting something out of it. It follows then, that if the payoff is removed, the brain will no longer find value in continuing the behavior.

So what’s the payoff for all the worry?

Well, let’s see — what happens to most of us when we worry? We feel fear or anxiety, don’t we? That’s the product of all the worry — and the payoff. If you were somehow able to neutralize the emotional “reward” resulting from all the worry, the brain would very simply stop expending the energy to continue the worry behavior.

As counterintuitive as it may seem at first glance, only when you cease trying so hard to stop worrying, and instead allow the worry to continue unabated, will you basically bore yourself out of the need to keep worrying.

But, admittedly, it’s difficult for the untrained person to just take this idea, run with it, and somehow make it work. You have to do this right.

One really great way to make this happen effectively is to schedule a particular time to worry, and do nothing but worry. It’s even better if you schedule this time during a period when you would, quite frankly, rather be doing something much more entertaining, such as watching your favorite TV show — say, every evening between 8:00 – 9:00 PM. You see, to the degree you can associate inconvenience to the process of worry, your brain will begin to associate pain to the behavior. At the point wherein the brain begins to associate more pain with the continuance of a particular behavior than simply giving it up, your brain absolutely will give up the behavior — guaranteed.

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