By Nancy Eichhorn, PhD
Worry can plague you. It digs and jabs, disrupts and jumbles: your sense of serenity dislodged. According to Rick Hanson, PhD, anxiety—a form of worry—allowed our ancestors to survive. Being able to sense danger, to determine if it was safe to approach, to avoid or move on allowed our ancestors to see another day. But when we focus on the bad, the good gets left behind.
Luckily, our brain can be trained. Just because we instinctively trend toward worry doesn’t mean we can’t move beyond that energy trap. Worry doesn’t make anything better. In fact, most of the time, what we worry about never comes to pass. We make situations far worse than they turn out because our brain’s insistence on focusing on all that can and will go wrong!
Reading a blog post by Dr Elisha Goldstein, PhD, I appreciated his “SAFE” process to help people worry less. I offer a synopsis of what I read and words directly from Dr Goldstein which are quoted and attributed accordingly:
To start, “Soften your understanding of worry”. While our brain thinks it’s protecting us from some perceived or dreamed up potential danger, it basically kick-starts our autonomic nervous system—the old fight, flight, freeze response we’ve heard so much about. We get caught in a rat cage, on that darn metal wheel, squeaking as we race round and round, going absolutely nowhere. Images, words, sensations trapped in our historical mental archives only serve to stress us out even more.
Next, “Allow/accept the feeling”. Worry can and does lead to anxiety and fear. Here Dr Goldstein brings in the mindfulness practice of letting the experience be, just acknowledging that it’s there, accepting it, not getting triggered or hooked by it. Just say something to yourself like, “oh, I’m feeling worried, okay. Not sure why, there’s nothing here, in this exact moment that I need to worry with. So, I will let it be and know that it will go away.”
Then, “Feel into it with kindness”. I like exploring with curiosity. This is the time to attune to sensations in your body, maybe place your hand where you feel tightness or nausea or tingling, whatever sensations you may feel when you’re wrapped up in worry. Compassion toward yourself will signal your brain to move from the worrisome feelings to kinder more loving feelings. It helps to ramp down the run-a-log (not a dialogue but a running faucet of words, thoughts, images whatever of negative thinking).
As you connect to the sensations in your body, Dr Goldstein offered some exploratory questions, reminiscent of mindfulness work and Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing. The questions bring you into contact with the sensations so you can start a conversation and help redirect the thoughts from negative to positive. For instance:
• “What does this feeling believe? Does it believe you are unlovable, unworthy?” Can it take over your life, cast you into some deep dark isolated pit?
• “What does this feeling need right now? Does it need to feel cared for, to feel secure, to feel a sense of belonging?”
• Listen for answers and respond with positive refrains. Such as: May I feel safe and secure. May I be free from this fear. May I sense belonging. Find the right statement that fits you and your worry, and like a mantra, repeat it over and over.
Finally, Expand your awareness beyond yourself to include all people. Tap into the reality that you are not alone. Worry triggers fear, fear creates feelings of danger and vulnerability. Isolation can be deadly, literally and metaphorically. It helps, per Dr Goldstein, “to impersonalize the experience and get outside of ourselves”.
He offered another practice set of positive refrains to recite: May we all feel safe and secure. May we all be free from fear that traps us in repetitive cycles of worry. May we all feel a sense of belonging.
Dr Goldstein recommends repeating this process whenever worry plagues you. With time and patience, your brain can be tamed. Mindful practice paves the way for past patterns to be resolved, replaced with something positive and supportive. When you train your brain to focus on what is good in your life, on what is happening in the moment you can be filled with compassion and love. Love is far more expansive and inclusive that fear and worry, no doubt there.
Many thanks to Dr Elisha Goldstein, PhD for sharing his process to reduce worry and move into a more spacious presence of ease and joy. To read his article you can find it here: https://elishagoldstein.com/worrying-less-in-5-steps/
Many thanks to the artists on Pixabay who share their work. We thank Geralt for his brain image and Lars_Nissen_Photoart for our feature picture.