"Don't Worry, Be Happy"
Do you remember that catchy tune in the late 1980s by Bobby McFerrin? How often do you engage in worry, especially about things beyond your control? Hafin and colleagues (1996) report that approximately 2/3 of Americans classify themselves as worriers. About 1/2 of that group view themselves as moderate worriers who worry between 10-15% of the day. The rest of the worriers report that they worry more than 8 hours each day.
Worry is defined as a pattern of thinking driven by feelings of anxiety (Brantley & Jon Kabat-Zinn, 2007). Worry typically is about some aspect of the unknown. Since our mind is designed to protect us it often swings us to the worst case scenario or the "what ifs." Have you noticed how holding a certain thought often leads to a physical reaction? When you worry, your body goes on guard, as if something terrible is about to happen. In fact, you get the same threat signal to events in your minds as you do to actual physical threats in the environment. There is research (Burkovec & HU, 1990) that suggests that worry helps us to temporarily avoid unpleasant imagery, feeling and sensations associated with anxiety.
How often have you attempted to stop worrying? You may have been able to distract yourself for a short time but this is usually followed by more anxiety and additional attempts to "not feel." And this is followed by criticizing yourself for an inability to control or stop the anxious thoughts and sensations. How many times have you said, "I'm not the person I should be...I am weak...If only I was stronger or had more faith...what's wrong with me..." And this leads to more worrying!
Since our attempts to avoid or stop anxious thoughts do not work and lead to more frustration, we need to take an alternate approach, that of learning to remain in the present. Since worry is almost always about the future, if we can focus in the present we are much better off. Being present breaks the cycle of thoughts that fuel the fear reaction. It also gives the relaxation response a chance to activate. More importantly, your relationship changes to your anxious thoughts. Now, it's not about getting rid of those anxious thoughts, but seeing them for what they are, just our mind's way of trying to protect us. We don't have to struggle to get rid o f them, we can have them and in doing so they lose their ability to control us.
So how do we begin this process? Brantley and Zinn (2007) speak to this issue in their book, "calming your anxious mind." One way to change your relationship to those anxious thoughts is to create a place of inner spaciousness that can include and contain any upset. In short, it is learning to make room for whatever is happening on the inside. Try on this exercise: Imagine your mind as a large white room with an entrance and exit door. Now, notice the various thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they enter the room and just watch them without trying to alter or change them in any manner. Some thoughts will enter and leave rather quickly through the exit door, others will linger. Some will be more uncomfortable but are not permanent and will eventually leave. Notice what happens as you observe, without engaging them. Remember, you are the container for your inner experience. You remain the same despite what comes through the door. As you experiment with this exercise you will discover that you're more than your anxious thoughts. Further, as you make space for them, they will begin to lose their power over you. Now, you do not have to exert all your energy and time attempting to get rid of them, instead you can pursue those activities that give your life a sense of meaning and purpose.
More than the programs ...
At The Pain Center, all of our doctor's and therapists see patients outside of the programs. If you have a new injury, significant stressor, severe pain flare-up or need to adjust your home exercise program - come back to the team that you trust. We're happy to help.
Have a question about a flare up?
You are still a part of The Pain Center family. If you ever have a question, please give us a call at 616.233.3480 and we'd be happy to answer it.