Don't Try Harder, Try Different!

Simple strategies for handling anxiety and stress.

Control Is an Illusion Part 1

Worry is the biggest waste of time in the world.

Control is an illusion. There, I said it. Accept it and move on. You are not in total control of anything at all. You can have some control of some things, but total control is not achievable. Take these examples - you are not in total control of your own mind. If you were, then you would not think of a pink elephant when I tell you not to think of a pink elephant, but I will bet you money that you thought of one. You are not in total control of the way you feel. If you were, then you could just stop being anxious and stop worrying about everything right now and never be anxious again. And, you are not in total control of your behaviors. If you were, then you could stop blinking your eyes while being awake for the next 5 hours. So, we are not in total control of our own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors - therefore there is no way we will be in control of anyone else's thoughts, feelings and behaviors either. Total control is an illusion.

Control is attempted by worrying, and worries can feel like control in two ways. One way is that we think if we worry about something, then we can influence it. For example, my parents would wait up for me when I started to drive, and when I got home they would ask if the car was OK and if I was OK. I would say yes and then my mom would say "Well, it was a good thing that we were worrying about you" Implying that it was her worries about me that kept me safe. This was, of course, not true, but you can see how a correlation was made. Each time she worried, and I was OK, she learned that worrying and my safety were related. So, worries, got to be paired with safety, and then made the leap to worries make safety. This is a common leap that people make, but it does not work.

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I want you to do a simple test. Stand up, hold a pencil in your hand over the floor and worry about the pencil not hitting the floor. Then, let it go and see if it floats. If it dies float, then worries do work, and if it falls to the ground, then worries do not work. It is a simple test, but give it a try. You will see that worries do not work, and therefore worries are just a big waste of time.

So, looking at the lists that you filled out earlier of your fears and worries, try to see if you can actually make any of them go away by trying not to think of them. When that does not work, then try the opposite - try to only think of the thing that you are worried about and then see how soon you get distracted from it. This is a good technique to get you to stop worrying, and it is your homework assignment: I want you to take half an hour a day and purposely worry about things. Do nothing else other than worry. After that, go about your day or evening, and if any worries come up, write them down and worry about them in tomorrow's worry period. See how this works and let me know. More to come soon.

Patrick McGrath, Ph.D., is the Director of the Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital's Center for Anxiety and OCD Program and president of Anxiety Centers of Illinois. more...

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