How to Break the Chronic Worry Habit

Overcoming chronic worry.

Sara Hines Martin is author of the books Healing for Adult Children of Alcoholics (Broadtnan Press, 1988; Bantam Paperback, 1989); Shame on You! Helping Adults from Alcoholic and Other Shame-Based Families (Broadrnan Press, 1990); and Meeting Needs Through Support Groups (New Hope Press, Birmingham, AL, 1992).

From Home Life, February 1993. Copyright 1993, The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

My family members say that if I don't have something to worry about, I'll make something up," a friend said.

"It seems as if something is always nagging at me in the back of my mind," a counseling client reported.

These are traits of chronic worriers, individuals who go around with a dark cloud hanging over their heads.

Some years ago I identified myself as a chronic worrier, alias a worrywart. I worked to change that. Here are two examples of crises—one minor, one major—I faced last year with calmness in contrast to the hysterical way I would have handled them some years ago. First, when I called in my secretary to put eight hours of taped interviews for my new book onto my computer, the tapes had nothing on them. Second, a mammogram revealed a lump in a breast when we had no medical insurance. (Later in the article, report on how this came out.)

I was glad I had conquered the chronic worry habit!

Steps that helped me

Here are some things I have found helpful in breaking that habit.

Attending a 12-step program on a weekly basis for three years and doing what each requires has helped me change my thinking patterns from negative to positive. I attend a group for Adult Children of Alcoholics (many other groups exist). These groups follow the steps originally developed for Alcoholics Anonymous. The first three steps help especially in this area of turning loose the worry habit.

The first steps reads: "We admitted we were powerless over______ , and that our lives have become unmanageable." The second step reads: "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." The third step reads: "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God."

We worry because we believe we are able to change those people or conditions. Step One helps us clarify areas in which we are powerless over events and especially over people. If I have no power to bring about change, that releases me from the feeling that I should take action.

We can also resist the guilt messages others give us. The family members of a 65-year-old man told his wife she should make him carry out doctor's orders.

Worry warts have a lot of passiveness and do not see themselves as powerful persons—people who take action and do not waste time on worry. Step One helps us get in touch with our own strengths and lets us know when we can take action.

When I know what I can't do and what I can do, I then make a choice about what to do. Maybe a particular problem is not mine to solve. I choose how to expend my time and my energy.

Step Two lets me know that when I am powerless, there is Someone who has greater power than !— Almighty God Himself. This lifts my burdens because I know I am not alone. I feel comforted and hopeful.

Step Three comes hardest, but with practice it becomes easier. Chronic worriers are controllers, and it is difficult for them to admit that something is beyond their power to change.

Specific things to do to stop worry

* Start your day with a prayer that God will give you wisdom and help you maintain an optimistic, positive, confident attitude for that day alone. Remember Bible verses and hymns that speak of God's care. A Sunday School teacher had as her motto, "Talk to God before you talk to anyone else in the morning, and read the Bible before you read anything else,"

* Be still. When I feel anxious, I take deep breaths, praise God, gratitude for past blessings, and nake requests about the current problems.

* Remember times when God helped you in the past. My home church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, reminds me that the word "ebenezer" means "hitherto," which assured the Israelites that as God had helped in the past, He would continue to help them in the future. When caught in the grip of worry, I say, "Ebenezer" and "hitherto."

* Respect your feelings when a problem arises. Are you feeling anxious? scared? discouraged? overwhelmed? upset? terrified? out of control? angry? Treat your feelings with respect rather than saying to yourself, "I shouldn't feel this way."

* Use positive self-talk. You may say something like "I'm feeling upset, but I really believe that a solution can be found. I know my feeling panicky will not help. I will try to think clearly."

* Ask, "What can I do?" If we can take action, we ask God to give us the courage to do what needs to be done.

* Take it one step at a time. We make problems bigger than they are sometimes by trying to solve them in one fell swoop. I look at what action, perhaps even a very small one, I can take at that moment.

* Look at options. Worriers usually get into a narrow groove in thinking. When we expand our viewpoints, we become more creative in our problem-solving skills and ask, Is there another way to go about this?

* Ask for help. It is now habit for me to pray immediately when some problem occurs. I may speak to the Lord as a friend: "Lord, we have a difficult one here. What are we going to do?"

We need to be selective in choosing people to help us: persons who keep confidences when necessary, those who do not judge us and scold us even when we do something stupid, and those who will not take the situation out of our hands and act as if it is their own problem.

* Get additional information. When we think, "There is no solution," we need to get all the facts possible. That can change our outlook.

* Write down fears. This activity helps us see them more realistically. Maybe things are not as bad as we thought. Writing also helps draw in scattered thoughts that attack the mind like pecking birds and helps a person gain a sense of control over what's happening.

* Get a proper perspective. A pastor asks his worrywart wife, "Is it a matter of life or death?" when she frets. Usually it is not, and she turns loose some anxiety.

* Use a God-bag. Write concerns on slips of paper and place them in a paper bag. Agree with God that you are not going to worry about these situations for 30 days. When tempted to do so, remind yourself, "It's in the bag!" Notice at the end of the month how God has worked in that area. Update the bag as needed.

* Take a break from working on the pro! lem. Physical exercise such as walking or team sports help, as well as social activities. Reading something far removed from the task at hand gets us onto a different track and gives us a fresh eye. Focusing on a problem too long can cause us to get a distorted focus that can lead to hasty or destructive solutions.

* Reprogram negative thinking habits. This is the hard part! Chronic worriers have practiced their habit diligently for a long time.

You can wear a rubber band around your wrist and snap it every time you catch yourself worrying.

The technique called "thou .ht stopping" calls for you to say "Stop" when you get into the groove of thinking negatively.

Ask yourself: Do I want to continue thinking this way? What positive things could I be thinking now?

I say to myself, "W. T. (wasted thought) alert!" I have so many tasks to accomplish each day, I cannot waste my precious thinking time.

* Look at the model you are presenting to your children. Most chronic worriers learned that habit at their parents' knees. The children grew up "knowing" this is the way one handles problems.

* Look at your if-onlies and what-ifs. Most people spend the majority of their thinking time with regrets of the past (If only! had ..."); or fears about the future ("What if I do this, will things go badly?"). When we stay in the present, we can solve problems more efficiently.

* Let go of perfectionistic expectations of oneself. Perhaps the majority of my worries have come from my expecting myself to make a perfect decision in every situation. Now if I make a mistake, I say, "What can I learn from this so that this will not happen again?"

* Give up the need to please everyone. Many worries come from our fears that other people will criticize us. We need to make the best decision possible and let people think of us what they need to think. We cannot stop people from gossiping, but we can stop worrying about it.

* Recognize the futility of worry. Worry wastes time; it takes a toll on physical heal th; it makes us un­pleasant companions; it accomplishes nothing.

Report on medical crisis

I promised you earlier I would tell you how the medical situation in my life turned out. I went through the first three steps of Al Anon.

Step One: "I am powerless over my body, and I am powerless over the insurance situation."

Step Two: "I believe there is Some­one who can help."

Step Three: That came a bit harder, but I was able to say, "Lord, you know all my work is freelance and that it is important for me to stay healthy. You also know I do not have medical insurance. Whatever happens, I am turning my life and my care over to you."

When I went in for the biopsy, the doctor could not find the lump! The hospital returned the check it required me to bring since I did not have insurance, and I went to eat a delicious breakfast of blueberry waffles. That day, my worries about calories were dismissed!

Sara Hines Martin is author of the books Healing for Adult Children of Alcoholics (Broadtnan Press, 1988; Bantam Paperback, 1989); Shame on You! Helping Adults from Alcoholic and Other Shame-Based Families (Broadrnan Press, 1990); and Meeting Needs Through Support Groups (New Hope Press, Birmingham, AL, 1992).

From Home Life, February 1993. Copyright 1993, The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. All rights reserved. Used by permission.