Worries are repetitive thoughts associated with feelings of anxiety in anticipation of some negative future event. Whether the worries are about family problems, work, health or any topic of concern, the anxious feelings produced and sustained by worrying are almost always distinctly unpleasant. Yet anxious feelings and the worries that lead to them can prove helpful.
Here’s a two-step solution to responding to worries. The goal is to put your anxieties to work in a positive way so that they become an effective aid to staying in the happy zone.
1. Worrying alerts you that there’s a potential problem ahead. Blinking yellow lights signal that you’d best slow down and look around. That’s good.
2. Once the worrying has successfully caught your attention, seek out information, and map a plan of action.
Worrying versus thinking
If your mind keeps spinning on the same worried what if thoughts, odds are you have not progressed sufficiently all the way through the second step of processing a worry. There may be more information that you need to gather, or more solution-building that you need to do. Slow down again in order to truly focus on the concerns that your worry is attempting to bring to your attention. If the same worries are returning to your mind again and again, it means that your mental wheels are spinning like tires stuck in snow instead of moving forward via the two-step thinking process above.
Here's a case example of worrying from my clinical practice.
The following case was the most dramatic I’ve seen of worrying that was potentially good and a response that needed to be more active.
Maureen came to my office one morning beset with obsessive worries about whether she had stomach cancer. Her doctor had said no, that his tests had ruled out cancer, saying that her stomach aches probably stemmed from the marriage problems about which Maureen had confided in him. "Don't worry. Be happy," the doctor said, echoing the advice of her husband who had become increasingly annoyed at Maureen's worrying, at her obsession with the thought that she had cancer.
Maureen found herself unable to follow the "Don't worry; be happy" advice. The uncomfortable feeling in her abdomen had continued, and her worrying only increased in frequency and intensity.
“How could you find more information about whether your abdomen discomfort really is or is not from cancer?” I asked. "Information is the best antidote for anxiety," I added, quoting a saying from transactional analysis, a method of therapy that had been popular some years back.
Maureen's answer surprised me. “I don’t want to hurt my doctor’s feelings by going for a second opinion,” she said.
“OK," I replied slowly, thinking as I spoke about how to find a potential win-win option. "How about if I phone the doctor down the hall in the medical office building where I work. You’d only be seeing him because I insisted that I need the information for my work with you. Would that plan enable you to get further information that could allay your worries?"
“That I could do it,” Maureen replied tentatively, hesitantly agreeing to the plan. "I just really like my doctor who's like a father to me. I wouldn't want to alienate him, but if I tell him you made me go see your doctor colleague, I could do that."
I picked up the phone, asked my doctor neighbor if he could fit my client in right away, and sent Maureen immediately to his office. The doctor examined her. On the basis of his findings, he scheduled her for surgery that very afternoon. The cancer was rampant with a fast-growing tumor.
Fortunately the one surgery took care of the problem, and Maureen is still alive.
[This story has a surprise ending. Many years later I found myself in a hospital emergency room. The nurse who took care of me was stellar. When my body was stabilized the nurse suddenly turned to me. "Dr. Heitler," she said. "Do you know who I am?" I had no idea, but tears welled up when she told me. It was Maureen. Now she was saving my life.]
Most medical worries, unlike this case, turn out to be unfounded. This story is not meant to scare anyone.
On the other hand, the point of the story is important. “Don’t worry; be happy” is insufficient advice. I prefer “If you worry, figure out how to solve the problem." Get more information, map a plan of action, and then you’ll feel happy again.
If your worries center around an important relationship in your life, pay special attention (click here and here for earlier blogposts that I've written on this topic). Sustaining positive relationships is a huge factor in staying happy.
I repeat, the moral of this story is: Worries are there to motivate information-gathering and problem-solving. To keep yourself happy, treat your worried thoughts as valuable signals. Pay attention to the concerns they are pointing you to, get further information and take action.
Susan Heitler, PhD, a graduate of Harvard and NYU and a Denver clinical psychologist, is author of multiple books including From Conflict to Resolution for therapists and The Power of Two for couples. Her interactive online course called PowerOfTwoMarriage offers a fun way for couples to learn the skills for marriage success.