Do you find yourself worrying a lot? I know I’ve spend sometime in the worry corner, wondering how things will turn out. Worry is a precursor to fear. But it doesn’t always have to go in that direction. Reid Wilson, PhD, author of Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety & Worry, proposes a groundbreaking, paradoxical approach to overcoming anxiety and worry by moving away from comfort, confidence, and security and willingly moving toward uncertainty, distress and discomfort.
In Stopping the Noise in Your Head, he addresses how worry can be an important asset when it forces our attention on problem-solving. He says that anxious worrying can cause us to unnecessarily focus on threat, to retreat and avoid, and to seek reassurance and safety — which is no way to foster a life of growth and excitement.
In the interview below, Wilson explains his unique perspective.
Carma Spence: Worry seems like such a natural emotion. Is it good? Is it bad? Should we worry?
Reid Wilson: We all worry, and it is built right into our psyche as a survival mechanism. So worry is absolutely good. It signals us to plan our time and prioritize our tasks. It signals us to watch for danger. But the problem with worry is that it ignores any positive information; it only focuses on the negative. And worries make noise! The noise of worry can become like a boombox in our head with no off-switch. It is the most frequent symptom among patients who consult physicians with psychological complaints.
CS: Why do we worry so much? What makes us so susceptible to what you call “noisy” worries?
RW: Certainly our daily tasks and challenges and our need to perform at a very high level can bring us a great deal of stress. And that stress can turn into worry. But we also set ourselves up when we are unable or unwilling to tolerate the uncertainties of life and when we need ourselves to quickly move back to equilibrium of comfort.
Of course everyone seeks comfort. And everyone wants to feel confident about certain outcomes. But when we decide we must be certain of an outcome and we must become comfortable, then we are going to worry more than we need to.
CS: Yes, but who in their right mind wants to be uncomfortable? And it can be hard to motivate yourself to take on some project if you don’t know it’s going to turn out OK. But in your book you suggest we should purposely do things that make us feel clumsy, awkward and uncomfortable. Please explain.
RW: And this is how we worry more and accomplish less: We try to get rid of our doubt and discomfort. It’s this need to get rid of problems that get us into trouble. Anything that is resisted will persist. So, as crazy as this sounds, when we choose to face a challenge, we should purposely and voluntarily choose to go toward uncertainty and distress. If we want to learn something new, then we need to be willing to feel clumsy, awkward, doubtful, and even distressed.
CS: You’re saying our motto should be, “Courage first; comfort latter”?
RW: Exactly. If you want to lead an exciting life then voluntarily and purposely choose to look for opportunities to get uncertain and anxious.
CS: So you want to feel uncertain? Want to be anxious? Those are hard concepts to get behind. Why in the world would we want to feel worried or insecure?
RW: We can absolutely win over our noisy worries. But our strategy is all wrong, even though it feels right! We have to apply the proper strategy, because worry is a cunning and manipulative challenger.
What if you said, while you are anxious, “I don’t want to feel this way! I need to get rid of these feelings!” Your amygdala – your body’s alarm system – is going to fire right off when it hears that message and it will secrete more epinephrine, more adrenaline. Then you’re going to feel more of what you don’t want to feel. You are going to feel even more anxious. It’s the difference between resisting and accepting.
CS: But when we get anxious and worried, shouldn’t we try to relax? We hear that all the time: Learn to relax.
RW: Too many people tell themselves, “I need to calm down. I need to relax.” The better message is, “I want to focus my attention back on this current task.”
Anxiety is less of a culprit than is our thinking process. If I become anxious as I take a test – that’s not necessarily a problem. But when I look at question one and have no idea of the answer and then begin to worry that I’m going to fail the test, worry that failing the test means I’ll get a poor grade, and worry that a poor grade will lower my GPA and keep me from getting into graduate school, this becomes the problem. When we are resilient, we notice question one, feel doubt about the right answer, and then move on to question two and see if we can solve it. We work to stay in the present moment and focused our attention on the task at hand.
CS: Yes, but anxiety can be so uncomfortable. What’s wrong with trying to relax during those times?
RW: It’s fine to see if you can relax a little, take the edge off. But when we engage in a stressful event, and then require ourselves to calm down, that’s much too difficult a task. It requires us to shift from one level of arousal down to another. We can call that arousal-incongruence.
It’s much easier to shift our mindset in those moments, even though we are anxious. Shifting our perspective to a willingness to take on the current challenge even though we are anxious — that’s an easier task because it is arousal-congruent. I don’t have to change my physiology; I only have to change my thinking.
CS: It seems like the average adult today has so many tasks, so many agendas. Our to-do list gets so long, and we never seem to get to the end of it. It’s hard not to complain about that.
RW: We make our work so much harder when we complain. Our mind can only hold on to four chunks of information at any one moment. So consider the interference caused by resisting what’s in front of you.
“I hate this chore.” “When will this be over?” “Why does this always happen to me!” –– all these messages chew up consciousness that otherwise could be devoted to handling the present moment. It’s better to accept the tasks in front of us rather than resist them.
What can we gain by becoming more accepting? There’s an old expression: “If you want to hit the bull’s-eye every time, throw your dart first and then draw circles around it.” When we accept instead of fight the present moment were immensely more creative and productive.
CS: You’re saying welcome hardship? Welcome our difficulties?
RW: Here’s a way to fool around with this idea. Tune into the moments when you seem to be resisting the task in front of you. Then, willingly take on the opposite position. Tell yourself, “This is exactly what I need to be doing right now.” Don’t bother looking for justification for that position. Simply adopt the stance. You’re going to find that everything becomes easier when you take on that attitude.
CS: In your book you describe four specific tasks to win over these noisy worries. Can you describe them?
RW: We control our worries moment-by-moment. “Step back” refers to the ability to gain perspective in the moment of distress. “Want it” emphasizes the intention to access an emotional state counter to fear. “Step forward” implies the typical assignment of exposure, while adding this new point of view. “Be cunning” suggests specific tactics in the moment of doubt and distress.
CS: What about worries that are more legitimate – say, the fear of flying?
RW: If you’re talking about someone who’s afraid of the plane may crash and that they may die –- this is not a legitimate worry. The chance of dying on a plane is incredibly small. You have to fly every single day of your life for 26,000 years before your number would be up. But people who are afraid to have what I call “possibility thinking,” not “probability thinking.” If you ignore probability and only focus on what it would be like if the plane did crash, then, of course, any one of us would be anxious.
CS: You say that we need to change how we talk to ourselves. Can you explain that?
RW: We all have an on-going internal dialogue; 96% of adults report talking to themselves. And we are doing it over 25% of our day. Numerous studies have shown that positive self-talk will enhance outcome in sports performance. And that self-talk can be either motivational (“I can do this”) and instructional (“follow-through”). We can combat our tendency to back away by activating incompatible “approach” emotions. When we re-frame a performance as a “challenge,” as opposed to a “threat,” this shift decreases a sense of threat and improves our performance.