In the previous blog “Worry may be Hazardous to You and Your Relationship,” we recognized that excessive worry is costly. It takes time and energy but brings little rewards. It often leaves the worrier feeling helpless, anxious, physically depleted and more worried. Interpersonally, it compromises relationships, leaving partners feeling swept into the worry, avoidant or angry.
Worry need not be a life sentence or a relationship deal breaker. Drawing upon experts like Edna Foa and Reid Wilson who address coping with worries and obsessions, let’s consider some strategies for dealing with excessive worry — what I call “CPR” for worries.
“CPR” for Worries
CPR for worries includes strategies of Connection, Postponement and Redirection of Activities. The anagram is intended to offer an easy reminder of tools to reduce excessive worry. As a metaphor it recognizes that excessive worry can make it hard to “breathe.” Consistent with this, relaxation techniques that regulate breathing and lower body tension are an important corollary to all of these strategies.
One of the most powerful antidotes to excessive worry is connection to a stronger self and connection to others.
Connection to A Stronger Self
Since worry is often fueled by a vulnerable self unable to make a decision or face a negative situation, connection to a stronger self committed to handle and control “worry” rather than resist it, changes the set. You already know that telling yourself “not to worry” or having someone else tell you that rarely works. It leaves you with no alternative but to feel more anxious or worry more.
Self-Statements of a Stronger Self
Fueling the loop of worry are fears like: “What will I do?” “What if my decision is wrong?” “ How will it turn out?” Consider the impact of self-statements like:
“I can change my mind if it doesn’t work.”
“This is not my problem”
“I’m going to see what other people think”
“I don’t have to have the answer now.”
Connection to Others
It is difficult to stay locked into a loop of excessive worry when someone else interrupts the thinking with a different perspective or additional information.
For example, being willing to share your sleepless worry about sending your 10-year-old to camp may give you the opportunity to hear that other mothers have checked out the staff or have older children who had a wonderful and safe time.
Connection With Your Partner
- Worrying Partner – Sharing your worries with a partner to get another perspective or for help in using one of the CPR strategies can result in a much more positive reaction than the demand for endless re-assurance about the same worry.
“I can’t do this presentation. I can’t go to work tomorrow“ vs.
“I’m so worried about this presentation, can you give me some feedback?”
- Responding Partner – Because of your psychical and emotional bond, being verbally and nonverbally present a the partner (eye to eye contact, actively listening, a hug or supportive gesture) can really reduce the physical tension associated with worry.
For example, if you realize your partner can’t sleep and you hear again that he/she is worried about losing the house, hugging your partner and reminding them of your resilience as a couple reduces the sense of being alone.
“There is nothing we haven’t figured out together in ten years ” vs.
“Here we go again – you are driving us both crazy.”
“I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” (Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind”)
Apparently Scarlett O’Hara was familiar with postponement as a powerful strategy for handling worries. Whereas trying to dismiss the worry may not be realistic, choosing when to worry puts you in charge. It gives you the psychological space and time to do something else or think of something else. This brings down the anxiety and often affords a more realistic appraisal when you do think about it. In the face of worry that just won’t stop, Edna Foa recommends a continual plan of systematic postponement and a designated “ worry time” to disrupt and dilute the pattern.
Partners can really enhance the mutual use of postponement to reduce worry. There is a very big difference between “Don’t worry” and “Let’s postpone worrying about this until morning when we can sit down and think it through together.”
- As a rule of thumb, if we are acting out too much – it makes sense to start thinking and if we are thinking too much — it makes sense to start acting. Accordingly, another valuable strategy for reducing worry is involvement in activities.
Instead of worrying about the call to your doctor – make it.
Instead of laying in bed worrying about what you need to do the next day – get up and write a list.
- The involvement in activities unrelated to the worry is a powerful counterpart to postponement. Once you postpone your worry, it is helpful “to do” something else. Very often time spent in other activities begins to occupy your attention and reduce your anxiety. It is sometimes a surprise to the worrier that they have become so engrossed in a new activity — they forgot to worry.
- When partners decide to postpone worry and act together they usually feel connected, empowered and less stressed.
“Let’s relax tonight and deal with the car tomorrow.”
“Let’s take a run — we are not going to solve this today.”
“Let’s paint the room and then decide if we can afford furniture and the rent.”
Breathing instead of Worrying
Giving up a familiar pattern, even a painful one like excessive worry, is never easy. Much like a diet or exercise plan, one try is not likely to make a difference. It takes practice and planning at non-stressful times. Since worry is often thought of as necessary “to keep something bad from happening” the very attempt to use connection, postponement and redirecting activities may be underscored with anxiety. For this reason an important corollary of all these strategies is the use of relaxation techniques at every step of the way — particularly when you have the urge to give up and worry.
“Calming Counts” – is a relaxation breathing technique proposed by Edna Foa and Reid Wilson in their book, Stop Obsessing. Take a moment and try this quick version:
- Start by taking a long deep breath and exhale slowly saying the work “relax.”
- Now take ten easy breaths, counting down, starting with ten, on each exhale.
- Picture your body relaxing.
- Open your eyes and consider:
We are only promised one day at a time — this day belongs to you. Live it, enjoy it.