By Margalis Fjelstad – Ph.D., LMFT, Rachel Rothman Borrero – LCSW-R , Kelli Korn – MSW, LCSW
“We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it. But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.”
~ John Newton
Worrying can take up a huge amount of your time and energy. It sucks your energy, attention, and focus away from the present into catastrophic fantasies of the future. Worry by definition is always about negative possible outcomes.
You may have an unconscious belief that worrying about someone or something proves that you care and that you’re somehow accomplishing something.
Actually, worry does very little to help any situation or person. Sometimes, you can even start feeling the other person’s feelings and become so distraught that you use all your energy dealing with your own upset and have no energy to give to them or the situation you’re worried about.
Instead of making anything better, worry does just the opposite.
It makes you use a vast amount of emotional energy on very negative possibilities that 99% of the time never come true. Eventually, every worrisome situation will have only one outcome. However, worry tends to send you down dozens of possible wrong paths of unwanted possibilities—even ones that are highly improbable but nevertheless very upsetting.
Worry can also be vague—a sense that something could be or is about to go wrong.
It may start with a dream or an omen or sign that triggers an old negative experience, memory, fear, or unresolved pain from the past and turns it into a feeling of impending doom.
Short-term worry is usually a signal that you need to pay attention to something that is concerning but which you’ve been putting off dealing with.
However, when worry seem to hang on for long periods of time or is vague and unsettling with no specific focus, it becomes debilitating
I call this ongoing circular worry Disaster Vision.
Disaster Vision can become a habit or even a lifestyle if you indulge in it without doing something to change your inner emotional climate or take action on the problem.
Here are some really helpful steps you can take to limit the amount of worry that you do.
These steps will help whether you’re having stage fright, facing a health crisis, applying for a job, deciding to begin or end a relationship, dealing with the results of an election, or coping with any other situation that you want very much to go a certain way.
Step 1: Identify exactly what you’re worried about.
Put your worry into words. This can help you get a handle on the specifics of what you think could happen. Identifying your fear and giving it a concrete name engages your thinking, problem-solving mind, rather than just suffering through your generalized feelings of dread, anxiety, or panic.
Step 2: Consider each possibility.
At first, it can feel scary to put real focus on each unwanted possible outcome. However, this is an empowering step.
Fully engaging your conscious thinking processes to analyze each fearful possibility moves you out of the vague sense of overwhelm you’re in and brings all of your cognitive abilities into the forefront. This gives you a beginning sense of possible real outcomes.
Step 3: Engage your problem-solving abilities.
Focusing on the real possibilities you may face moves your brain into problem-solving mode. Narrowing down your possible outcomes to the one or two most likely, helps you focus on coming up with solutions that you could handle.
You can then start problem-solving instead of useless worrying.
“What will I do if x, y, or z happens?” You will be much more able to figure out these one or two possibilities instead of the vague overwhelm you started with. Problem-solving engages all of your abilities, including experience, knowledge, past successes, strengths, and creativity–which will feel empowering.
Step 4: Create Plan A, B, and even C.
Settle on a plan that you can live with for each of the most likely possible outcomes. This helps you narrow down the problem and helps you gain control of what you will do no matter how the situation turns out. Then exile the unlikely possibilities. Refuse to waste time on those dead-end fears.
Step 5: Let it go.
When you have your contingency plans in place, you no longer have to spend any more time worrying.
When your worry feelings do surface, you can reassure those feelings that you have action plans in place, that you’re secure, and you can handle whatever comes up. Then distract yourself with any activity that takes your mind off the worry until the situation is resolved.
Going through these steps automatically lowers your worry signals because you now know you have thought things through and have made realistic decisions about what to do about the situation or problem.
You can feel secure that you’re prepared. This builds your confidence that you’ll be okay, and that you can help others to cope as well.
Margalis Fjelstad, Ph.D., LMFT – www.margalistherapy.com
We all handle the discomfort of stress and worry in our own ways.
Having these feelings is not a problem, but sometimes what we DO with those feelings can be. Many people avoid or flat out run (knowingly or not) from these uncomfortable feelings.
The problem is that when we avoid these feelings, when we leave them unrecognized, we head down a road that typically leads to even more stress and worry.
This avoidance can cause irritability, increased sadness or feeling “off.”
People may feel keyed up or find themselves full of rage. Even if you try your best to ignore and avoid these thoughts and feelings they almost always seek an outlet – a way to find relief and release. This is a shared experience among humans – the need to alleviate our discomfort.
So how can a person help themselves better manage stressed and worried feelings?
First – give yourself a break!
Remind yourself that life is full of challenges. If you are a parent remember that parenting is the hardest and most emotional job you will EVER have. Offer yourself some kindness. Know that tomorrow is a new day and it offers you the opportunity to do differently.
Second – feel your feelings.
The greatest way to deal with your feelings is to allow yourself to acknowledge them. Stop judging your feelings or yourself for having them – there are no bad feelings.
By sitting with your emotions rather than reacting to them you offer yourself the opportunity to process them and remain intact.
You become aware that you can survive your emotions. You will calm down; the moment will pass; you can successfully, even as hard as it feels, manage your way through.
As the quote above states: “When we are willing to stay even a moment with uncomfortable energy, we gradually learn not to fear it.”
Third – forgive yourself if you need to.
This follows up with #1 and offering yourself some kindness. Forgive yourself if you’ve yelled a little too much, or been a bit snappy. You can even talk with the people you feel you’ve been a bit too curt with about your feelings. There may be no need to apologize, but possibly a chance to share your feelings and connect with someone.
Use yourself and your reactions as a teaching moment and then work to react differently. (*** If you find yourself having extreme or aggressive reactions see resources below).
Fourth – focus on reality.
Stress and worry are the tricksters of emotions. They can make small problems seem really big. You may find yourself catastrophizing situations and coming up with a thousand awful end results. The truth is anything your mind comes up with may be possible, but the very important question to ask yourself is, are they probable?
All of life is vulnerable to extremes – the best of or the worst of things. The reality, however, is that most of life happens in the middle. Most of life is neither the best nor the worst. This is a valuable reminder when life begins to feel overwhelming.
Fifth – get some support.
When the stress and anxiety of life become overwhelming it can feel very lonely and often like you are the only one who has these feelings. I guarantee that you aren’t. You are not alone. You’re just one of so many suffering in silence (especially if you’re a parent) – too embarrassed or ashamed to talk about what you’re feeling or doing.
I go back to my first comment: offer yourself some kindness.
The world has changed drastically over the past 20 years and finding our “village” can be extremely difficult these days. We often have to look really hard for them. But you can find them. They’re there in your parenting Facebook groups, in your own family, with your colleagues or other peer groups in which you have some feeling of trust.
Sometimes just hearing someone say, “Yeah, that happens to me too” is all you need for support and relief.
So, while there is no magic elixir to take away stress and worry, there are some things you can do to better cope with it.
Some people appear to be handling life with ease, but we never really know what is happening for a person. On the outside someone may seem calm, cool and collected, but inside they may feel shaky; they may find themselves having difficulty breathing, feeling chest pains, getting sweaty and/or dizzy.
Some people might be questioning if they can really manage all that life and/or parenthood throws at them; maybe they’re feeling on edge or even full of rage; maybe there’s a growing worry that they can’t handle all their feelings or they’re overwhelmed with meeting everyone’s needs.
If any of this speaks to you it may be time to talk with a professional for support. Asking for help is not a weakness; it is the bravest and strongest action you can take.
Rachel Rothman Borrero, LCSW-R – www.rrbtherapy.com
This technique falls under the category of mindfulness and is a component of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) therapy, although it works well with any treatment modality.
I use “The Container” with almost all of my private clients and it is helpful for 95% of the clients who utilize it.
The key is to follow the step and determine which option works best for you, and to use this technique on a daily basis until you are comfortable with it.
It can be used with any age, even modified for small children. The purpose of “The Container” is to offer a safe place to store feelings, images, and feelings to revisit, either in a therapy session, or later when you are safely able to process.
1. For ages 10+, Visualize a container that would be able to safely store anything unpleasant or disturbing that comes to mind.
This container should be strong enough to secure disturbances including memories, feelings/ emotions, images, thoughts, physical sensations, smells, and sounds.
Picture, or write down the characteristics of the container.
It should be strong and secure, but allow you to take things out as you desire. It should be comfortable enough for past experiences to be willing to stay until you are ready to work on them.
Example: My personal container was not very exciting to start.
What initially came to mind was a boring old tupperware container- clear container, maroon lid. This is what I started with when this technique was presented me the first time.
I chose this partially because it was concrete enough as I had these specific containers in my cabinet- feel free to be more imaginative and creative! (I have had clients create mental containers such as a metal safe, filing cabinet, bucket with a lid, computer with a CD drive, a jewelry box, a gift box, and a doll house.)
For ages under 10 (or if you struggle with abstract ideas, you may find an actual container to use- there are a lot of adult clients who prefer to find an actual container, which is fine!)
I have a stack of tupperware in my office for teaching clients how to use this and some transition to a mental container and some continue to use a physical container- either the tupperware, or something more fun such as a metal tin or jewelry box.
2. Imagine using (or actually use) the container:
Either write down the memory, thought, feeling, image, or sensation, or picture it in your mind.
Once you have it ready, go ahead and put it in the container and put the lid on/ shut/ lock the container.
This may take some practice mentally, which is why I would start with a physical container until you can visualize this in your mind’s eye. Take a deep breath and notice and sensations.
Notice any positive feelings / emotions / sensations are coming up as you imagine putting things into your container. Focus on those positive sensations.
If there are any lingering negative feelings, thoughts, etc. go ahead and write those down/ mentally list them, and put those in the container as well until you feel that the disturbance is contained until you are ready to access it. You should feel positive, or at least neutral if you have contained the disturbance/s.
4. Designate a cue word:
As you focus on those positive feelings or sensations, is there a word or phrase that would represent your container?
Strengthen the connection between your cue word and positive feelings by picturing them several times in the following minutes.
Pretty soon, you will be able to contain negative sensations, and say your cue word to tie in positive feelings in just a couple of minutes.
Keep in mind that this technique is like any other exercise, mental or physical, and it takes practice. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work right away, or if you need to use a physical container.
This technique is not meant to ignore or stuff negative thoughts and feelings. It simply gives us a place to store these intrusive sensations until we are either with a therapist, or in a safe place and ready to process.
Many times, the things we put in the container don’t need to be revisited (such as a bad day at work or being cut off in traffic), but for the bigger items, especially those related to traumatic events or negative life circumstances do need to be processed with the help of a professional.
I recommend following “The Container” with a few deep breaths, or by going to my mental happy place for a couple of minutes before resuming with life.
Kelli Korn, MSW, LCSW – www.cofamilycounselingcenter.com