The Worry Habit

It’s not enough to manage anxiety, we have to change the habit of worry.

Posted Nov 16, 2020

You might call the times we live in the second “Age of Anxiety." 

Surveys and clinical data indicate the highest levels of national anxiety since the post-war publication of Auden's eponymous poem when the shadow of nuclear destruction loomed over us.

Anxiety is the first signal of the mammalian alarm system. In all animals, it signals a possibility of harm, deprivation, sexual failure, departure from routine. In social animals, it signals possible (not probable) isolation or abandonment. In humans, it signals possible loss of status or esteem. 

Types of Anxiety

Temperamental: We’re born with an emotional tone that includes a certain susceptibility to anxiety.

Situational: Particular situations raise anxiety (test-taking, driving, public speaking, performance).

Symptomatic of something else: Emotional disorder, stress, depletion of physical resources (tired, hungry, ill).

Beneficial Anxiety

In small doses, anxiety is a vital emotion. Without it, we could be killed crossing the street and would find ourselves ill-prepared for many of the important tasks of life. Anxiety tells us to pay attention—something might happen.

Simple anxiety is activated by actual or anticipated change in the environment, memory, or imagination. It makes us focus on dealing with the pending change by shutting out most other information. The anxiety about starting a fire in the room gets you to stop thinking about what you’ll have for lunch so you can focus on preventing the fire—check the gas, turn off the iron, service the furnace.

Among anxiety’s beneficial signals are those that tell us to improve:

  • Self-acceptance—when we're too self-critical
  • Self-care—when we need to sleep, eat well, exercise, practice self-compassion
  • Relationships—when they need attention and possibly repair.

Problem Anxiety

The benefits of anxiety are lost when we construe it as a red light, rather than a yellow light. When that happens, we can be paralyzed by anxiety rather than motivated to improve our health, well-being, and safety.

In problem anxiety, all signals mean that something bad will happen, and we can’t cope with it.

Characteristics of Problem Anxiety

  • Scanning—taking in a lot of superficial information; makes it harder to focus, causes higher error rates
  • Thought-racing—the faster they go, the less reality-testing is applied
  • Thought-looping—thinking the same things over and over
  • Self-consciousness—I might be judged
  • Vigilance—judging others, looking for negatives

Anxious people tend to be controlling, but not with malicious intent or desire to dominate. They try hard to avoid feeling “out of control” by keeping the environment from stimulating anxiety. Never mind that people hate to feel controlled, which means continual frustration. External regulation of emotions increases vigilance and worsens anxiety in the long run.

A lot of resentment and anger—especially in families—stems from anxiety that we blame on each other. ("Something bad will happen and it’s your fault.") Blame temporarily organizes thoughts and gives feelings of confidence and empowerment, thanks to amphetamine-like stimulants (adrenaline and cortisol—it’s hard to sit still when you're blaming). In the long run, blame worsens anxiety by forming habits of external regulation. If you're making me feel bad, I'm powerless to improve.

Regulating Anxiety

All good alarm systems are calibrated to give false positives. (You don’t want a smoke alarm that goes off only when the house is engulfed in flames; so you accept that it goes off occasionally when people are cooking or smoking.) Biological alarm systems are better-safe-than-sorry, which is why the central nervous system would rather be wrong a hundred times thinking your spouse is a saber-tooth tiger than be wrong once thinking a saber-tooth tiger is your spouse. We’re not descended from early humans who underestimated danger.  

Recognize, however, that anxiety is not reality; it’s a signal about possible realty. Check out the alarm, but don’t mistake it for reality; the smoke alarm is not the fire. Most of the time, it signals caution, not danger.

Give Answers

Racing thoughts must have answers to form alternative synaptic connections and prevent thought-looping. Never have an anxious thought without giving it an answer, based on probability.

“I might lose my relationship.”

Consider how likely this is.

Answer: “I’ll do my best to save it. If I lose it, I’ll make the best of my life.”

“No one will love me.”

Consider how likely this is.

Answer: "I’ll be more compassionate, which will make me more lovable.”

"I’ll screw things up.”

Consider how likely this is.

Answer: “I’ll try my best to avoid a mistake and correct any I might make.”

For Situational Anxiety: Use the Anxiety Formula

Importance x Unknown x Perceived ability to cope

The classic example of the formula at work in situational anxiety is entering a cage full of lions, which, for most of us, would send anxiety levels through the roof. It has life-and-death importance, we don’t know anything about lion behavior, and we don’t know what to do to stay alive. Yet the same situation is exhilarating for lion-tamers. It’s important, so they have to be careful, they know enough about lions to predict behaviors, and they have the skill to manipulate the big cats safely.

Since problem anxiety has little to do with imminent danger, we must first ask ourselves, “How important is it?” (How relevant to my core values?) Much of what we worry about is petty ego offenses and things that have utterly no influence on the quality of our lives unless we obsess about them.

We reduce the unknown by learning more about what worries us. We increase the perceived ability to cope by making contingency plans.

Change the Habit

By the time we’re adults, most anxiety response is habituated, through a series of conditioned responses. The most effective way to counter undesirable habits is to build new habits that are incompatible with them. For example, we can train ourselves to focus on improvement at the first signal of anxiety. Improving the situation is incompatible with ruminating about it. 

The optimal habit is triggered by the physiological arousal of anxiety, which is much faster than cognitive awareness. It will then seem that much anxiety is prevented, although it is actually regulated faster than awareness.