In last month’s blog, I spoke about happiness and challenged you to take the “happiness challenge.” One of the biggest obstacles to happiness is stress and worry. We all have some stress and worry in our lives. Some stress and worry can be helpful in our daily functioning. However, when stress and worry overtakes us, we begin to spin and move to the dark side. In my practice and at my school, I often work with adults and children who are adversely affected by stress. In this month’s blog, I would like to share with you the top five strategies that have helped my patients combat stress and worry.
1. Give Worry/Anxiety a Name
It is essential to first recognize and name what one is experiencing. Many times when I work with children and adults they are being “tricked” by worry, allowing worry to dictate their lives. Step one, is to recognize when it is the “WORRY” talking to you. Once you recognize that it is worry trying to trick you, you are better able to accomplish Step two, which is “DON’T LISTEN TO IT!” As one of the kids I worked with said, “When I hear the worry bug trying to trick me, I try to flush him down the toilet.” If you look at a common thread that is shared in evidenced-based treatment for anxiety, they all give worry a name. By giving worry a name, the worry is externalized and separated from the person, making it easier to address.
2. Distinguishing Productive from Unproductive Worry
It is imperative to distinguish between engaging in productive as opposed to unproductive worry. You know that you are in “productive worry” when the problem is acute and solvable and you quickly move from the problem to problem solving. In contrast, you know that you are in “unproductive worry” when the problem is far away, unsolvable, and you are spinning. For example, I will share a time when I engaged in both. I found out a few days before my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah that the person I thought was responsible for showing my daughter’s montage could show the montage, but did not have equipment for the montage to be heard. So I quickly engaged in productive worry (since the problem was solvable and around the corner) and got the equipment needed (these types of problems seem to be able to be fixed by throwing money at them). However, I also engaged in some unproductive worry because even though I knew everything was taken care of, I still kept spinning about the what ifs (e.g., What if there is a problem with the equipment? What if the guy flakes in some other way?) But, then I labeled this worry as unproductive and disengaged from it.
3. Understanding the Difference between Possibility vs. Probability
When I work with individuals, I have them distinguish whether their concern is a “possibility” or a “probability.” Even young children seem to be able to understand this distinction. If the concern is a possibility then it should not be dwelled upon. In contrast, if a concern is a probability then the person should take heed. For example, let’s say I became worried that I would not finish this blog before my April deadline. I would conclude that this concern is a possibility as opposed to a probability. I would determine this based on the evidence (e.g., I am 3/4s done with it and it is only April 7th; In the past, I have always finished before my deadline). I explain to my patients that if we were to live our lives based on possibility, we might as well live under a box, under a desk, or tucked away in a corner of our house, because anything is possible. Instead, I think, and my patients generally conclude, that it is better to choose to live one’s life based on probability for a fuller and more enjoyable life.
4. Meditation and the Power of the Breath
The more I engage as a therapist, the more I realize how important it is to have my patients embrace meditation. I often find that children and adults are often reluctant to meditate, finding it boring or hard to do. However, it is because meditation can be boring and hard to do that it is so crucial. In today’s world where everyone is multi-tasking and splitting their attention in a billion directions, it is essential to learn how to be present. People who worry are often not present. Instead they are often worried and living in their “negative what ifs” about the future. Meditation teaches people to stay present, accept their feelings, and be at peace. In addition, breathing is one of the few ways we have control over our nervous system. By breathing slowly, we indicate to our bodies that there is no emergency. As a result, our nervous system calms down, allowing us to make more thoughtful and mindful decisions.
5. Don’t Avoid, Instead Expose
When people worry, their natural tendency is to avoid: scared of swimming, you don’t go in the pool; scared of tall buildings, you don’t go to the top. However, what we know is that the act of avoidance reinforces in the brain that the feared object is scary. Your brain looks at the avoidance and concludes that for example, swimming is scary or that tall buildings are bad for you. The only real way to change is to EXPOSE oneself to the feared stimuli. But this should be done gradually. I am not a big believer in immediately exposing yourself to your biggest fear (the kids would stop talking to me and I would probably have few patients). We know that people have a working zone – an area where they are willing to face their fears. By staying in this working zone, people can successfully address their fear in stages, with success breeding success. Furthermore, the muscle memory of gradually approaching the feared situation as opposed to just talking about the fearful situation leads to lasting and meaningful change.
To recap, recognize if you are worried, engage in productive worry only, live your life based on probability, meditate, and don’t avoid, but rather face challenges head on!
I hope you find these strategies helpful. If you want to hear more about this topic, I will be giving a free workshop on this topic (Get Ready to Change… Make It About Yes! Helping Decrease Stress and Worry in Our Children and Our Own Lives) at the Scarsdale library on May 1st (12:00-1:15). Click on the link to register. https://calendar.scarsdalelibrary.org/event/849731?hs=a
Please see my website (drbaruchfeldman.com) for additional blogs, articles, and presentations and follow me at twitter at [email protected]