The End of Worry
1 Why We Worry
I am an old man and have known
a great many troubles,
but most of them never happened.
When I (Rob) get up in the morning, I tend to do things that I think will be useful. I have breakfast to give me energy. I brush my teeth to keep them healthy. I put on clothes because others will appreciate it! My point is that we tend to do things we believe will have value. So what is there to worry about?
If you ask most worriers, they will tell you that churning away at things doesn’t help, but they think it does—at least at a deeper level. There must be something about worry that we think assists us, which means we do actually value it (like our old pair of comfortable jeans) and believe it is useful to us. And so we are reluctant to discard it.
In this chapter, we present worry as a process (or thinking style) with clear patterns and goals. Worry doesn’t just happen.
We learn to do it over time, and it tends to operate the same way in different people. It is this that gives us hope, because if we can understand the processes and patterns, then that is the first step to overcoming worry.
Where Worry Starts
Worriers can typically trace their worrying back to childhood, and even to their parents or other family members who worried before them, so there is a genetic contribution to worry that is important to understand.
Psychologists talk about hardwired aspects of our personality, such as whether we are more introverted or extroverted. These aspects are neutral and not illnesses or problems. It is fine to be either an introvert or an extrovert—or even a mixture of both. All parts of the spectrum come with strengths and weaknesses that are well within the normal range, and are fully compatible with living a fulfilled life.
One aspect of personality that psychological testing has repeatedly shown to be part of the normal spectrum is “neuroticism”: a tendency to think about things and to be cautious. This has obvious advantages in life: for example, if you are neurotic, you are less likely to be the first one into a fight. But there is also a downside, in that you may be more reticent about going for a new opportunity. On balance, however, it is seen as a valuable
aspect of human personality. Evolutionary biologists would say that neuroticism is genetically “successful,” that it has been helpful enough to have been selected over many generations. People who score highly on neuroticism scales are compassionate, careful, and make good friends. The other stable aspects of this type of personality are extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.
Neuroticism is the part of personality that is least talked about. One common personality questionnaire, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, doesn’t even mention it.1
Instead, it focuses on the other four dimensions above. So why doesn’t it measure neuroticism? One explanation is that Myers Briggs was in part developed for business use, and businesses generally don’t see the advantages in neuroticism, but love extroverted, open, agreeable, and conscientious workers. The result is that, in our culture, people who tend toward neuroticism are made to feel they are abnormal—even when they are very strong in some respects and well within the normal human range.
Jonathan thought deeply about things. He liked to see situations well and truly proven before participating in them. He would often be the last person to adopt a certain fashion or fad, preferring to stick with “classic” styles and tried-and-tested ideas. Other people who were always off to the next big thing frustrated him; he thought there were more important things than
the latest iPhone, for example. He placed his focus instead on spending time with people—often people who couldn’t afford the fashions anyway. They felt comfortable with him. He sensed that he was connecting deeply with them. His deep thinking meant that he remembered their birthdays and what they had said the last time they had met. They felt understood, but to him, the constant deep thinking caused him worry.
It’s true that people who come with this genetic background—the deep thinkers—are more likely to develop problematic worry. But this is only part of the story. Many people with this personality aspect do not worry, and the personality itself is not a problem—it is normal. So it is possible that instead of being problematic worriers, these people may simply be healthily slightly neurotic! However, given the link between neuroticism and unhelpful worry, if you do have a tendency to think deeply and cautiously, you may start to respond too deeply and too cautiously over time, whereas a less neurotic personality might brush things off more easily or not even give them a thought. A good example of this is if you experience a near miss, such as nearly going into debt, or nearly lose a parent to cancer, and you begin to think too deeply. This can lead to you making extra plans and taking extra precautions in the future to try to make sure something never happens again—and then to do a lot of worrying about whether these plans and precautions
are enough, or not . . . or maybe they are . . . but then again . . .
Families can also contribute to this excessive thinking. They may live by sayings and mantras such as, “Better safe than sorry” or “You never know.” There is truth in these thoughts, to be sure, but there is also the potential to take them to extremes. There are also families where no one seems to worry, so a child feels he or she has to, or where a future divorce is so likely that there is no stable ground to rest upon.
The Reason for Worry
Worry is a normal human emotion, and there are times when it is perfectly right to worry—in fact, it would be odd not to.
Jackie is a mother whose son has joined the army and been posted to a war zone. She knows she can’t not care—this is impossible, not to mention immoral, for a mother. But neither does she feel she can allow herself to consider the possible ultimate consequences. If she were, for example, to contemplate her son being blown up, it would probably destroy her, and, at the very least, she would probably have a panic attack. So she ends up having a good old worry instead. If she is honest, her worry has become a comfort. And other
moms in similar situations share this worry with her. Worry is her “friend” at the moment.
Jackie is not the only example we could give of healthy levels of concern growing to worry. Will and his wife, Louie, nearly lost their second child, Joseph Douglas, during the writing of this book. For seven consecutive weeks, their child was treated in the hospital for a serious breathing problem and a complex MRSA infection. Will described himself during this time as having been “the most genuinely and justifiably worried” he has ever been in his life. Interestingly, he says this felt very different from the sort of worry he normally experienced (and you will hear more about these two types of worry later in the book). Will described the sort of “justifiable” worry he experienced as similar to the anguish of the Prodigal Son’s father who watched every night for his son’s safe return (Luke 15:20).
Worry also has a protective function, ensuring, for example, that we prepare for possible threats when in dangerous places or make suitable arrangements for retirement or times of ill health. But worry isn’t necessarily the right word to use here—acute concern is a better way of putting it—because there is definitely a healthy process of thinking that is driven by a fear of something bad happening. And frankly, if we didn’t worry, we’d be dead.
However, this level of normal worry can easily turn into something else. It can begin to have a more unhelpful function, and we get stuck in cycles of worry. Someone once said that
worry is like a rocking chair—it doesn’t get you anywhere, but at least it gives you something to do.
But what is a normal amount of worry, and when does worry become unhelpful or unproductive? This is very hard to determine, especially because it is circumstantial—such as in the case of the mother above. But worry is more common than you think. We set ourselves an impossible and unnecessarily high standard if we think we will get to a level of never worrying. Research studies have found that 40 percent of university students worry at least once a day, but people with GAD worry about 60 percent of the day, so there does seem to be a spectrum ranging from what is “normal” to what will result in illness.
The Pain of Worry
The Dutch writer Corrie Ten Boom is reported to have said, “Worry does not rid tomorrow of its sorrows, but it does rob today of its joy.” People tend to struggle on through with worry, never really relaxing and never really panicking, and this prevents them from enjoying the day-to-day joys of life. They live in the future and never delight in the moment, which is a gift of God, a “present” to us in both senses of the word. They also tend to keep their worries to themselves, believing that other people would not want to help them or be bothered.
Because they enjoy and share things less, there is a tendency
over time to slip into isolation and inactivity. Add to the mix that worriers also give themselves a hard time for worrying, and this makes depression much more likely. Many cases of depression start as an anxiety problem of some kind, and then the mood lowers as negative thoughts and behaviors begin to bite.
Worry also tends to get worse and generalize to other areas. Because many worries are about questions that have no easy or possible answers (more of this later), they tend to lead to more and more questions in an attempt to get to the bottom of the problem—except that no bottom exists. This is when worry really starts to turn into GAD and take up increasing amounts of time and energy.
The Process of Worry
All worriers know that, as soon as one worry is sorted out, another will come along and take its place. It’s a bit like cutting the head off a weed—another quickly grows to take its place. So we need to move beyond seeing each worry as an individual problem, and focus instead on the general style of thinking that worriers have.
To get the worry weed out by the root, we need to recognize and change this thinking style. Once again, think of it as being a bit like driving in a traffic jam.2
This time, instead of focusing only on the car in front of you, focus on the general flow
of traffic. Take this illustration further and imagine that it is your job to make all the traffic in a city flow as smoothly as possible; you really do need to get the big picture. To manage a city’s traffic, you have to focus on the core issues that affect traffic: different types of vehicles, drivers’ strongly held beliefs, rush hours, planned and unplanned construction, and so on. There are many parallels we can take from this analogy to help us with worry:
There are different worry themes that, like different vehicles, behave in different ways. Understanding what your worry themes are, and why you have them (and not others), can be the first step in understanding and then not worrying.
Worry uses tricks, like a stressed driver using a rat-run to avoid a traffic jam. But rat-runs in rush hours rarely work, as everyone else uses them, too. If we can learn the unhelpful adaptations we have made in response to worry, the tricks we think work, and then change them, this can help us drive through life more smoothly and probably more quickly as well.
Worriers have beliefs, such as, “Worrying helped me once and can help me again” or “If I worry about my family, it shows I care.” These beliefs are
based on truth to some degree, but are likely to have moved beyond being useful to now supporting and maintaining our worry. Gently breaking these rules can free up things a lot, as we realize our beliefs are not always true.
There Is a Future
Matthew worries about lots of things, but his main worry is about whether or not he will perform well at work. He wants to get things just right, so that he will be good at his job and please his parents who worked so hard to put him through school. He feels he owes them something, so he spends some time at the start of each day thinking things through. However, what started as a few minutes of problem-spotting has turned into about an hour of making lists, and lists about lists. Whenever he spots a problem and starts to think about it, he spots even more related things that might go wrong.
Over time, and by using techniques like those in this book, he has been able to sit back and see that, although he worries about many individual things, in general he worries about making mistakes and so letting his parents down. He also realizes that things go
better when he looks at the flow of his thoughts. He makes decisions about topics that need a decision, agrees to limit his lists about things that have no solution, and challenges his over-positive beliefs about the benefits of worrying. Slowly, he develops a tolerance of the uncertainty this brings, as he learns that this is a normal condition and he is not making that big mistake he feared.
He also learns that, as he spends less time worrying, he can spend more time enjoying his faith, and so he grows closer to God. He finds that he can please his parents and God without needing to be trapped by having to please them, as they all love him anyway. He still worries—sometimes more than usual—but it doesn’t take up an hour at the start of his day, and he can go with the flow a bit more as the intensity is less. Matt’s reduced worrying didn’t mean things got out of control; it meant that they came under appropriate control.
If you have worried for many years, it can seem as though things will never change. However, there are a number of reasons to be hopeful. This book is based on the techniques of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), the approach for severe worry recommended by the latest scientific studies. Also, we authors have been able to change (more about that later), and if we can
change, then anyone can! Even more importantly, we have an amazing God who loves us and loves to help us. And finally, we believe in the healing power of prayer and the community of the local church, and would encourage you all to get as much of both of these as possible.
The old adage of learning the difference between what you need, what you want, and what you worry about what you need is relevant here. God knows what we need! Telling the difference is something we will teach you later in this book. For now, we just encourage you to be hopeful, to read on, and to enjoy.
It’s also been our experience that addressing our worry doesn’t just make us worry less—it can actually make us more mature people, better appraisers of situations and more compassionate friends. Perhaps even in our worry and our dealing with it, God is working for good.
To Wrap Up . . .
We have looked at the origins of worry in our personalities and childhoods, and considered how worry has important and useful functions, but when severe, worrying can cause us great pain. We have looked beyond the individual concerns to see the thinking process behind worry as the problem, and reminded ourselves that this really can change.
To make a change, you first need to know your starting point. These questions will help you clarify why you are reading this book and what you hope to achieve. At the end of the book we will come back to your three answers to the last question below.
The two main questions I have about worry are these:
I understand worry (circle one):
AGREE—PARTLY AGREE—NOT SURE—PARTLY DISAGREE—DISAGREE
I can see a way of getting better (circle one):
AGREE—PARTLY AGREE—NOT SURE—PARTLY DISAGREE—DISAGREE
I feel trapped by my worry (circle one):
AGREE—PARTLY AGREE—NOT SURE—PARTLY DISAGREE—DISAGREE
If worry was less of a problem for me, then I would