Ever hear someone talking about a dog chewing a bone and they say, “That dog was worrying that bone to death!”? Just me? Really? Well, I have heard that before, and I always find that an interesting turn of phrase, because it’s such a great mental picture of what worry actually is. It’s a gnawing feeling around the edges of your consciousness. It doesn’t send you into a panic (most of the time); it’s just always there, causing you to be distracted and not focused on what you need to get done. It prevents you from focusing on what demands your attention here and now.
I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to worry. Now, I don’t really like to admit this (even to myself), but it’s true. I’ll call it by any number of other names (“I’m just focusing on solving a challenge!”), but it boils down to something on my mind that often causes me to lose sleep or be unable to focus on anything else.
I started having problems sleeping when I was in the military. I couldn’t just lay down and fall asleep, I had to wait (sometimes for hours) for my mind to settle down enough to allow me to relax at the end of a day. I was always thinking about something: the potential for deployments, responsibilities, how much I hated having to wear the same thing every day, etc.
Then, one day, someone suggested that the reason why my mind was always racing was that there were thoughts locked up in my subconscious that couldn’t get out. She further suggested a technique that I began to refer to as a “brain barf”. I would sit down every day for a set amount of time and either write on a piece of paper or type into a Word document everything that ran through my head. No filtering, no editing, and most of the time I didn’t even go back to read what I wrote. I just kept writing (or typing) until I totally ran out of things to write, or the time ran out. If I couldn’t capture a specific thought or articulate what I was thinking, I just wrote “I have nothing to write” over and over until the words started flowing again.
What a relief! If I did this exercise just before I went to bed every night, I found that I could fall right to sleep. No restless thoughts running through my head, keeping me awake for hours. Some type of psychological release occurred during my “worry time” that allowed all my pent-up anxieties to spill out on to the page. I’m guessing it had something to do with verbalizing (i.e. – acknowledging) the challenges that I knew (or didn’t know) I was facing.
Once you face your challenges head on by writing them down, you’re going to realize that most of them are really fairly trivial. The process of writing itself relieves your mind of its concern and will allow you to quit worrying. However, if you identify challenges that are concerning you, then take the following steps:
1. Single out what’s bothering you. Start the process by listing out the specific problems that are causing you stress. Assigning a name to the problem keeps it from being this nebulous thing that grows and grows.
2. What’s the worst that could happen? The next step is determining what is the absolute worst thing that could occur if the challenge you’re worrying about came to pass. Not the most likely scenario, but the most horrible result. That’s what you’re looking to quantify.
3. How likely is it to happen? Finally, assign a ranking from 1-10 as to how likely it would be that the worst possible result will happen. Personally, I’ve found that devastating results have an inverse relationship to likelihood. The worse something could be, the less likely it was to actually occur.
4. Plan for contingencies. Once you’ve figured out what’s bothering you, what’s the worst possible outcome, and how likely it is for that outcome to actually occur, it’s time to take action. Now you have all the information you need in order to be able to plan ahead and be able to handle challenges before they actually present themselves.
I found out that, once I made this a habit, I needed to do it less and less. I’m to the point now where, if I have some difficulty falling asleep, I’ll just grab my journal and head out to my family room for ten minutes or so. I’ll barf all my worries out on the page and head back to bed. It’s a great tool to use when you need it, and to disregard when you don’t. Give it a shot the next time you’re fighting insomnia due to a tough day at work or whatever else has been bothering you.
What are some techniques you’ve used in the past to handle your anxiety? Do you have any habits or processes that work especially well for you? Share them with us in the comments…
Photo courtesy: spaceodissey