I am going to try to worry less. It is something that I have been working on for a long time, but it is 2am and I am worrying about this column.
I get my worrying honestly; my father was an incessant worrier. And nothing good ever came from it. Any psychologist can tell you that worrying can create neuroses and fear in children; and parenting from fear and worry usually results in criticism. Worrying is also destructive on relationships and health. Most psychologists and psychiatrists believe that worrying causes anxiety.
And our species is not alone; many animal species worry. Anyone who has dogs knows about separation anxiety and panic from loud noises. My dogs become clingy and anxious when they see my suitcase. Prey animals exhibit anxious behaviors when they are in a vulnerable location. (There is a theory called the Landscape of Fear that suggests that this “worrying” keeps the environment in check.)
A new theory, the Contrast Avoidance Model (2011) proposes that worrying is a coping mechanism for anxiety. Anxious people tend to be hypersensitive to criticism, mistakes, shaming, and embarrassment. The Contrast Avoidance Model proposes that worrying increases the general level of anxiety, which reduces the impact of these negative experiences.
Sort of chicken and egg to me…does worrying cause anxiety or does anxiety cause worrying?
Over the years I have accumulated several Cognitive Behavioral techniques to reduce worrying. Here are some that you can try if you are a fellow sufferer:
- Living in the moment. We can’t change the past, we can’t predict the future, all we have is right now…and right now is pretty good.
- When you are worrying use a rubber band (to boink your wrist) or scream out loud, “Stop Worrying” (obviously only a good solution at home).
- Thinking about three items that are good in your life. (For example, my bed is comfortable, I have a wonderful family and friends, and I love my dogs.)
- The 3 3 3 anxiety/worrying rule. Name three things you see (not good in the dark); name three things you hear; move three parts of your body.
The goal of these techniques is to divert worrying.
But why do we worry in the first place?
The root cause of anxiety/worry is an overactive amygdala (in the brain). The amygdala sends a nerve impulse to the hypothalamus which activates the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then signals the adrenal gland to secrete adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol—the hormones that trigger fear.
About 20% of the population are born with overly sensitive amygdalae. And many, but not all, of these people find it difficult to control worrying and experience restlessness, fatigue, difficulty in concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, decision making, and sleep disturbance. Research has also shown that the size of the amygdala is larger in anxious people.
A significant problem with an overactive amygdala is that it interferes with sleep. Recent sleep research shows that in poor sleepers, the amygdala awakens them early in the sleep cycle which limits the amount of deep sleep. It is believed that this deep sleep “clears out the brain.” Remember the term, “sleep on it?” Sleep researchers believe that this deep sleep may “clear out” the amygdala, reducing the fear associated with a behavior/thought/decision.
It is too early to know if this is speculation or fact, but for those of us who are poor sleepers it makes sense.
So what to do? My long term goal is to reduce the size of my amygdala (which actually increases with worry and anxiety). Some vitamins and amino acids (tryptophan) may work. Keeping busy can also help. But most psychologists and medical doctors believe calming strategies, such as meditation, relaxation, deep breathing, and focusing on the moment (living in the now) are most effective, if practiced regularly.
So I am determined to go back to these techniques…even though I find them tedious (obviously, or I wouldn’t be in this situation).
Hopefully, one day I will be able to follow the sage advice of the immortal Alfred E. Neuman from Mad Magazine. “What me worry?”
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.