What to do when you have a “worry coming on”

I’m feeling a bit anxious today, for a variety of reasons — not least of which is that my parents are in a tizz about my mother’s bookclub and not being able to serve her guests tea since the kettle is broken. My father is dispatched to the local store to buy a new kettle and to prove my mother wrong when she says that he is “totally useless”. I hate being put in a position to have to defend my dad. “No, he’s not useless,” I say. “He’s just a bit slow sometimes.” That makes him sound like he has a learning disability or that he’s an old dog who doesn’t learn new tricks (such as springing into action the moment my mother clicks her fingers).

So I decide to turn to the Internet to soothe my anxiety. My usual strategy is to drink some tea, glance through the papers, catch up on some emails and then get down to work. But this morning, making tea would mean running the gauntlet of bookclub introductions. I can sense the trill of nervous laughter from this distance – and the joys of caffeine are not worth it.

So I turn to the Internet instead. Calling up Google, I type in the phrase, “how to soothe yourself”. I’m delighted to find that the very first site is called “soothingyourself.com” but my joy dissipates a little when I find that the trick to self-soothing is to buy various products: “Soothing Chamomile Cleanser, Soothing Apricot Toner, After Sun Soothing Milk, Skin Rescue Oil, Organic Face Cream, Acne Skin Care Remedies” and so on. Maybe there’s a gripping book on the subject. I find “The Worrywart’s Companion: Twenty-One Ways to Soothe Yourself and Worry Smart” by Dr Beverly Potter. The blurb is upbeat:

Brimming with practical ideas you can try today, The Worrywart’s Companion includes twenty-one simple things you can do when you feel a worry coming on. Instead of worrying yourself sick, The Worrywart’s Companion shows how to soothe yourself so that you can think more clearly, deal with the worry at hand, and then let it go. Positive, easy to understand, and fun to read, this revolutionary little book explores the roots of worry and explains that worry is a behaviour that is learned. The good news is that it can also be unlearned.

Of course. Good old CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy). Thanks to Amazon I can read inside the book and discover what these worry-tackling strategies might be. Here they are:

1. Evaluate the cost of the worry. 2. Take a deep breath. 3. Relax your muscles. 4. Distract yourself. 5. Take a walk. 6. Smile and laugh. 7. Say a little prayer. 8. Find the Joy. 9. Avoid drinking coffee. 10. Change should to preferences. 11. Count worry beads. 12. Eat a sweet. 13. Take a warm bath. 14. Imagine a happy ending. 15. Do a good deed. 16. Joke about the worry. 17. Rock yourself. 18. Count your blessings. 19. Make a list. 20. Practice under-reacting. 21. Watch a funny movie.

Now I don’t know about you but I feel like saying a little prayer for the joys of the Internet while counting my blessings (and my worry beads), avoiding drinking coffee and doing some smiling and laughing – not to mention some self-rocking. Actually there’s a whole string of active verbs here which are quite helpful: evaluating, breathing, relaxing, distracting, walking, smiling, laughing, praying, finding joy, drinking (and not drinking), changing thoughts, counting, eating, bathing, imagining, doing good deeds, joking, rocking, counting again, list-making, practising, under-reacting and watching.

Now I think these strategies will definitely make a difference, and they certainly made me laugh, but I find them limiting. It’s as if the answer is to try and avoid thinking too much about what caused the worry in the first place because thinking is associated with anxiety, which is pretty uncomfortable. A few weeks ago I blogged about Robet Gurzon’s take on anxiety. He distinguishes between three types of anxiety: natural anxiety, toxic anxiety and sacred anxiety. It helps to know that anxiety is a normal (and important) part of life but that the fear of anxiety itself (so-called toxic anxiety) is the problem here. Gurzon talks about unravelling the knot of anxiety, so that we can use anxiety as a tool for personal growth.

So I hope that Dr Potter won’t mind too much that one of my good deeds for the day was to share her tips (and a critique thereof) with a small corner of the blogosphere. The happy ending I’m imaging is that the bookclubbers leave enough cake for me to enjoy with my now introduction-free tea. I’ll spare you the self-analysis of the causes of anxiety. But I think the Friday fessing (or lack thereof) is reminding me that I’m a bit behind on my writing quotient for this week. Enjoy the weekend.

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5 Responses to What to do when you have a “worry coming on”

  1. Emily Barton says:

    Yes, “limiting” is a word I would use. Also “simplistic.” Sometimes, simplicity is what’s needed, as we tend to exacerbate worry by making things too complicated, but some of these suggestions lead me to ask, “How?” Finally, one is just plain unwise. I would never tell someone who was worrying to “eat a sweet.” Most, especially in a distracted, agitated state, can’t eat just one, and eating is not a good solution to anxiety and worry — too many obese people already do that. Hope the bookclub went well in the end. Why do things like tea kettles always decide to break at just such moments?

  2. pete says:

    Emily, yes I had to laugh when I read Potter’s suggestions because they are simplistic. I want to do a whole post about how self-help books can be helpful but limiting. And that’s a very good point about not encouraging comfort-eating as an anxiety-combating strategy. On the bookclub front, one of the nice things about temporarily living my parents again is that I get to read my mom’s books. So I have ‘The English’ by Jeremy Paxman and then ‘The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox’. All I need is a work-free weekend to read them.

  3. Litlove says:

    I can thoroughly recommend The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by the way! I read this post with great interest because I so often feel worries coming on and wonder what I can do about it. I am afraid that rocking myself would make me feel much, much worse. It’s one thing to feel like a lunatic on the inside, another entirely to look like one too. I guess I like meditation best, because nothing looks manageable with a thumping heart and a head of swarming thoughts. But if you find the answer, Pete, please do be sure to let us know. I, for one, would be most grateful!

  4. Dorothy W. says:

    Interesting — I’m certainly familiar with the feeling of anxiety slowly taking over my brain — I remember everything I’m uncertain about, everything uncomfortable I have to do, everything that could go wrong …. yeah, those suggestions do seem like avoidance, although the truth is that while avoiding thinking itself isn’t a good thing, avoiding over-thinking or stewing or going over the same thing again and again makes a lot of sense. For me, a good thorough but limited session of thinking about my worries followed by a bike ride works sometimes.

  5. qugrainne says:

    I make lists. Write it all down. What I have to accomplish is a list – chore-like. Things I am irritated about get a list. Books I need to pick up from the library-list. A list for the day, a list for the week, a list for the summer. Once everything is listed, I don’t have to worry or think about it. My mind has cleared, I don’t have to remember anything, and I can look forward to being able to cross things off the list, which is really sweet. Take a deep breath. Do something calming that takes no thought at all, like weeding or walking the dog. It is so easy to make a dog happy, I always feel so much better after spending time with her!
    Esme Lennox is a great book, I concur.

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