“Worries come uninvited, like party crashers. These party crashers are like fanatics on a mission. They have a message they think is important, a warning. They’re going to present that warning, again and again, even though it detracts from the party atmosphere, even though no one wants to hear it, because they think they can save you from trouble this way.” – David Carbonell, Ph.D.
Everybody worries – or as Dr. David Carbonell puts it – everyone has uninvited guests who come in with a very important message that we must listen to in order to detract from the party. In his book The Worry Trick: How Your Brain Tricks You into Expecting the Worst and What You Can Do About It, Carbonell explains his philosophy and research around worry or anxiety. He lays it out in layman’s terms so that everyone can understand what worrying is all about and then gives you tools to combat excessive worrying.
Carbonell writes: Joe worries a lot. It’s not apparent to most people. In fact, he’s often described by people he knows as a really calm guy. “Nothing bothers Joe!” they say. It’s an act. Inside his own mind, in his internal world, Joe is often bothered, often struggling to get his thoughts to behave and stop bothering him. It rarely works.
Worry is a common and bothersome occurrence for most of humanity. What is worry?
Worries are simply thoughts and images we experience that suggest something bad about the future. Nobody knows the future, but worries pretend they do, and that it’s going to be bad, really bad.
Everybody has worries and everybody responds to their worries in different ways. Carbonell explains that it is the relationship that people have with their worry that is most significant when attempting to combat it. He argues that worry consistently “tricks” people into taking an experience of doubt and treating it like an experience with danger.
What does this mean? Your body has very different responses to doubt and danger. When you are in danger, your body is primed to go into fight or flight mode (either to come head on at the danger or to run away). On the other hand, when faced with doubt, your body responds in the completely opposite way: to pause, breathe, and surround yourself with others.
If you pay attention to your worries, you will often realize that you mistake your discomfort or your doubt for danger and respond to it in ways that perpetuates the cycle of worry. But, what if you could change that cycle? What if you could pay attention to the way that your worries were “tricking” you and reverse them?
Carbonell has several tips about how to recognize when worries are legitimate and dangerous and when to move on and eliminate unnecessary worry.
Belly breathing. This is something that I’ve written about in many of my columns focused on anxiety. Breathing from your belly, focusing on your breath rather than your thoughts, is an incredibly important way to break the worry cycle. And, when we understand that the reason this works is because we are moving the worry from a response to imminent danger (which would require us to run or fight) to a response to discomfort or doubt (which requires us to pause and think), it gives an anatomical explanation to this positive response.
The rule of opposites. Another part of the way that worry tricks us is that our physical reactions to worry actually make it worse. Instead of breathing comfortably, we hold our breath. Instead of waiting and listening, we run. Instead of seeking out others, we turn inward. Instead of calming ourselves, we criticize the thoughts and demand calm. Instead of speaking to others, we keep “shameful” worrisome secrets. The rule of opposites is a great way to expose the worry for what it is: discomfort rather than danger. If you find yourself avoiding others because of a worry, tell someone you trust. If you find yourself holding your breath, breathe deeply. You’ll end up feeling much calmer and you won’t be allowing yourself to give into that worry trick.
Designated worry period. It’s often impossible to rid yourself of your worrying thoughts for good. Sometimes there are things that you truly need to worry about – and sometimes you just need to worry about things that are not so important, but seem incredibly important to you. In those cases, set aside 10 minutes a few times a week. During those 10 minutes, worry hard. Don’t make lists, don’t come up with solutions, and don’t think about what’s next. Instead, just worry. And when those 10 minutes are over, let your brain know that you did your worrying about those issues for the day and it’s time to move on.
Perhaps the most important thing that Dr. Carbonell imparts to his readers is that if you create a new narrative around anxiety, namely that it is a trick and not a disorder, it allows you to recover from it. Once you understand what anxiety is “trying to do to you,” you can work within those rules to reverse it. Ok, you’ve been tricked before and you’ll be tricked again, but you now have the choice to select a different course for yourself!