April 5th, 2014

Don’t tell a worrier to stop worrying

It will only make things worse.

And they’re likely to get mad at you in the process.

I’ll bet all you non-worriers have done it to the worriers in your life: told them the equivalent of “Just stop it. It doesn’t do you any good, and most of the stuff you worry about never happens anyway.”

True, true, true, say the worriers, if they’re being honest. But if they’re being honest they also say, “Easier said than done, non-worrier. Easier said than done.”

It’s not that it’s impossible. In fact, an entire approach called cognitive therapy has evolved to teach the worrier how to do it:

People who are working with a cognitive therapist often practice the use of more flexible ways to think and respond, learning to ask themselves whether their [negative] thoughts are completely true, and whether those thoughts are helping them to meet their goals. Thoughts that do not meet this description may then be shifted to something more accurate or helpful, leading to more positive emotion, more desirable behavior, and movement toward the person’s goals. Cognitive therapy takes a skill-building approach, where the therapist helps the person to learn and practice these skills independently, eventually “becoming his or her own therapist.”

A similar discipline called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy preceded cognitive therapy by about a decade:

One of the fundamental premises of REBT is that humans, in most cases, do not merely get upset by unfortunate adversities, but also by how they construct their views of reality through their language, evaluative beliefs, meanings and philosophies about the world, themselves and others.

…REBT claims that people to a large degree consciously and unconsciously construct emotional difficulties such as self-blame, self-pity, clinical anger, hurt, guilt, shame, depression and anxiety, and behaviors and behavior tendencies like procrastination, over-compulsiveness, avoidance, addiction and withdrawal by the means of their irrational and self-defeating thinking, emoting and behaving. REBT is then applied as an educational process in which the therapist often active-directively teaches the client how to identify irrational and self-defeating beliefs and philosophies which in nature are rigid, extreme, unrealistic, illogical and absolutist, and then to forcefully and actively question and dispute them and replace them with more rational and self-helping ones.

It’s different than just saying “stop that!” What these therapists do is to help clients identify the individual and specific patterns of self-talk that do them in, and to develop counter-statements that make sense to them and give the world a more positive spin.

So, going back to the research I linked at the beginning of this post:

For the study, 71 female participants were shown graphic images and asked to put a positive spin on them while their brain activity was recorded. …

“The worriers actually showed a paradoxical backfiring effect in their brains when asked to decrease their negative emotions,” Moser said. “This suggests they have a really hard time putting a positive spin on difficult situations and actually make their negative emotions worse even when they are asked to think positively.”

The study focused on women because they are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety related problems and previously reported sex differences in brain structure and function could have obscured the results.

Moser said the findings have implications in the way negative thinkers approach difficult situations.

“You can’t just tell your friend to think positively or to not worry – that’s probably not going to help them,” he said.

I’d love to see a study that compares worrier subjects’ brain reactions before treatment with cognitive and/or rational emotive therapy and their brain reactions after.

But I worry that that will never happen.

4 Responses to “Don’t tell a worrier to stop worrying”

  1. vanderleun Says:

    I don’t know about you neo but, frankly, I’m worried about the Beaver.

  2. Doom Says:

    I won’t suggest you not worry. Just that what you are worrying about is probably magnitudes of orders less than it should be, and very probably not even about the bus that will hit you, so… relax? It will get worse. Guaranteed. If believe dying is worse. :)

  3. Tonawanda Says:

    LOL.

  4. Ymarsakar Says:

    Emotions are only countered by other emotions, to generate a balance.

    Words and logick don’t directly affect emotions, at least in the way people think they do.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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