Pat LaDouceur, PhD, helps people dealing with anxiety, panic, and relationship stress who want to feel more focused and confident. She has a private practice ...Read More
Sofia wanted to stop her worry – worry about her job, worry about whether or not her husband will be laid off, worry about the news and the kind of world her kids will grow up in.
She can worry about the past or the future, big things or small – whether she volunteers enough, whether her kids get to school on time, whether her skirt has an unprofessional wrinkle.
Before lunch she can worry about dozens of things, and the day is less than half through.
She’s not alone. Many of my clients struggle with worry.
Our brains are designed to notice problems, and solve them before they get out of hand. It’s what kept our ancestors alive. It’s what helped us, as a species, to survive. Noticing problems and dealing with them quickly is part of our “stress response.”
But with too much worry the stress-response is “on” all the time, and we get exhausted.
When your brain is working optimally, you feel focused and calm.
When you’re anxious, on the other hand, it’s as if your thoughts have a life of their own. Worries are everywhere, and as soon as you try to solve one, another pops up.
Imagine trying to conduct an orchestra when the musicians can’t agree on which piece they’re playing.
Anxiety is like that. Because different parts of the brain aren’t working together at an optimal level, the brain ends up working inefficiently and you feel anxious or worried.
The wrong way to deal with worry
Constant worry is hard to live with. Most people try to deal with it in a couple of ways: by avoiding the things they worry about, or by distracting themselves.
At first glance these strategies seem reasonable enough. But in the long run they don’t really work.
For example, Sofia had been avoiding a difficult conversation with her husband because she worried that he’d be upset. But this didn’t make the conversation, which had to happen eventually, any easier. Meanwhile she worried.
She distracted herself by staying busy. But in the end she took on too much, and then worried about how she was going to get it all done.
There is nothing wrong with choosing a good time to have a conversation, or taking on a worthy project. But when avoidance and distraction are used regularly as a way to combat worry, they have the opposite effect. They’re short term strategies, and when short term strategies are used over the long run, they make worry worse.
Sofia and I worked to change her pattern of avoidance and distraction by targeting the worry itself.
Three ways to conduct an orchestra
Wouldn’t it be fun to conduct an orchestra that was focused and energized? Wouldn’t it be great of the musicians would cooperate, play the same song and work to their best ability?
- Sometimes a gentle nudge is all it takes to get a wayward musician playing well again. Simple strategies can be calming to your brain. For example, a few slow, even breaths every hour, or meditating for 5 minutes a day might be enough to encourage the musicians and soothe the worry. Daily practice for a few weeks or months makes these simple techniques more effective and reliable.
- At other times, coordinating the orchestra requires more firmness. Managing worry requires a coordinated plan that addresses the physical, mental, emotional, and relational aspects of worry. As Sofia and I worked together, the support she got from counseling helped her to combine a variety of strategies and integrate them into a busy life.
- For some people the entire orchestra is out of tune. While it still helps to take a few deep breaths and address the negative thoughts that feed worry, progress can be slow. This is where neurofeedback can help. Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that measures brainwave activity (EEG). It can help quiet a brain caught up in worry and calm the tension in the pit of the stomach. Neurofeedback helps change the way the brain controls the stress response.
With neurofeedback, you learn a skill as you coach the musicians back to harmony. When the violas are a bit flat or the horns too loud, you learn how to get them working together again to create satisfying and sometimes beautiful music. The brain learns to regulate itself. The not so obvious approach
Sofia had to give up her familiar short-term strategies of distraction and avoidance, and develop an approach worry that was deeper and long-lasting. She chose a few 5-minute strategies that she could use anytime, anywhere. Then with counseling and neurofeedback, Sofia was able to quiet her mental chatter and develop sense of well-being that she could draw upon when needed.
As she learned to conduct more effectively, Sofia found that she was moving through the world in a more peaceful way.
If you struggle with worry, a calmer, more relaxed approach might be just a few minutes away.
Simple strategies really do work. Five minutes a day, practiced over weeks or months, can have a profound effect.
Lasting change and more serious worries might take longer. If you want to change worry patterns on a deeper level, let’s talk about how counseling or neurofeedback might help. For a link to the current research on neurofeedback and anxiety, click here.
When your brain is working optimally, you feel focused and calm. Whether your “inner orchestra” needs a simple nudge or some serious retraining, you can learn to quiet worry. When the musicians are coordinated and everyone is doing their part, the music is fabulous.