Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Worrying too much? Here's help for anxiety

A few weeks ago, I was roaming around the web and found an expert who specializes in helping worrywarts—Audrey Sussman, Ph.D., director of The Anxiety Control Center. I e-mailed her to see if she'd answer some questions, and she kindly agreed. Disclaimer: If you are feeling freaked out all the time, you may need real professional help. This is just my little blog.

So, why are some people more prone to worrying than others?

People react differently because of deeply-rooted emotions and beliefs, which become filters for their perceptions. When a person reacts to an event, it is often not just the present-day situation they are reacting to, but an entire chain of emotions going back all the way to childhood. As children, we develop patterns and coping techniques intended to help us deal with stress or protect us from danger. For example, I had a client who felt that if she didn't worry something bad would happen. She grew up with an alcoholic parent and, as a child, had to run every possible consequence through her mind to make herself feel safe. Even as an adult, she still found herself consumed with worry. The circumstances had changed, but the thought pattern hadn’t.

Is worrying ever a good thing? Some of us are very talented at it.
Despite all the negative feelings attached to it, worry can serve a positive function when it prepares you for possible future difficulties. It can alert you to things that need to be taken care of, or of consequences of certain actions. Worry can keep you watchful for symptoms that indicate a possible problem, or it can motivate you to take positive action to improve the quality of your child’s life. However, once you have done everything in your power to anticipate and prepare for problems, worry ceases to serve a positive function. When your thoughts cycle into negative, scary future possibilities about things that are outside of your control, it is time to learn techniques to stop worry from putting another hardship in your life.

Got any simple techniques for stopping a worry in its tracks?
Yes, an excellent exercise called the "2 for 1" technique. It draws upon the same powerful imagination that you use to create negative stories, but instead you use it to create positive thoughts. Say you're sitting on the couch at night, troubled because that day, your child had a playdate with a typically-developing and your child's delays were really apparent. Do the following:

Step 1: Jot down the facts: what happened at the event.
Step 2: Make a list of the negative thoughts and fears you are feeling, every thought or vision in your head. As you write them down, you will start to realize that no matter how much you might believe the thoughts to be true, they are still just one possible way things might happen.
Step 3: Cross out the first negative thought you have written down, and write down two possible positive thoughts or possible positive outcomes in its place. Repeat this for each negative thought on the list, until all your negative thoughts are crossed out and replaced by positive ones.

Most of us are far more used to telling ourselves negative stories than positive ones. So it may feel a little strange at first to accept these positive thoughts as readily as you did the negative ones. With practice, though, you will find that the positive thoughts start to pop up on their own, just as the negative ones once did. Those positive possibilities will replace the cycle of worry with one of hope and potential.

I'd love to hear an example of a patient who effectively used the technique.
There was a parent I was working with whose son had recently lost part of his hand in a fireworks accident. As she watched him struggling to tie his shoe with one hand, she found herself spinning into a terrible worry cycle. In her imagination, she was moving from the facts of the present moment to a whole range of terrible thoughts and worries: Will he be able to function in a job? Will he be accepted? Will this accident change his cheerful personality? She also found herself remembering traumas from the past—remembering how other people had looked at him in the emergency room, and even thinking about how she’d been teased as a child and worrying that it would be yet worse for him.

Before she allowed this cycle of worry to overtake her, she tried the "2 for 1" exercise. She started with the facts of the present event: Her son was struggling to tie his shoe. She then wrote down all the negative thoughts that were passing through her mind, and replaced them with positive ones. She thought about the things he did well, his keen mind, his energy, his goofy sense of humor, she imagined him playing with his friends, thought about jobs in which he could be successful, even imagined him graduating from college and getting married.

And as she did so and stopped the cycle of worry, she noticed something that surprised her: the proud smile on her son’s face as he bounded up to her, his sneakers tied in a knot. It was then that she realized it wasn’t her son who was struggling. It was her.

That technique sounds good. But I have to ask, what if you really, really, really believe that the thoughts you have might come true?
Both the positive and negative thoughts you create about possible future events are fictional. The problem with negative thoughts and pictures you create in your mind is that even though they possibly will never happen, the unconscious mind nevertheless accepts them as if they are true. And you react with fear in the present moment to something that hasn't even happened. In the same way, when you create positive thoughts, the unconscious mind also accepts them as true, creating a reaction that opens you to the positive possibilities. Positive and negative thoughts both spring from the same place: your imagination. They are simply stories. You have the power to control your mind. So as long as you make up stories, you might as well choose ones that can serve you in a positive way.

What's your best piece of advice for parents of children with special needs?

Parents of special needs children have many stressors that never even enter the minds of other parents. In fact, many times it is the parent who suffers more than the child, as they struggle to reconcile their dreams for their child with the struggles of everyday life. Amazingly, children have a way of taking even the most difficult, frustrating situations in stride. The best thing you can do for your child is what you are already doing: encouraging him or her, being proud of each accomplishment, and celebrating—and enjoying—what is unique about your child.

Photo from istock


  1. "Many times it is the parent who suffers more than the child!"

    Now ain't THAT the truth. I can be worried sick, and my boys will be happy as larks. That's some good advice, there, Ellen. Now I just have to learn to take it!

  2. Amen sister! Wow Ellen this is really powerful stuff, thank you for doing this, I really needed this advice today. Thank you! Have you tried it yet? I'm going to give it a try!

  3. Thank you, this was really useful.
    It's a little bit similar to something I read in Dilbert (of all places!) and later heard from an NLP-inclined friend: you set a positive goal you want to achieve and either write it down a hundred times a day (dilbert) or draw a timeline with "your event" marked e.g. five years from now (nlp-ish).
    It's as if allowing yourself to dream opens up your mind to think of ways how your dream might come true.

  4. You blog don't count as professional help??? Nonsense!!! LOL Your write very professionally, and I find it helpful.. :-)

    You know, I do judo with a psychologist; he's blind, but he has a Dr./PhD. and runs his own private office. You know, I never thought to ask him any thing like this...

    But there is your 2 for 1... blind, but still a Dr./PhD. I also do judo with a CPA! LOL ;-)

  5. Great post! Thanks for sharing. I am a big worrier...giving me a cognitive task like writing down negatives and crossing them out with positives sounds like it just might work!
    Ellen, you have no idea how much your blog encourages me! Thank you.

  6. Thank you for this post - I too am a master worrier. I'm going to try the technique suggested. I have always found that writing stuff out helps put everything in perspective.

  7. hello Ellen and anyone who may be able to offer advice or support,

    I am mum to 3 children and the youngest one has been slower with his physical development.
    At first i was not to worried about this but as he has got older i have become more aware that there may be a problem - i thought maybe devolopment coordination disorder,dyspraxia etc. So i took him to paediatrician and then we seem to be on a path that is driving me mad with worry and too many questions.
    The paediatrician wonders about general late development and says definately not dyspraxia,the physio says he shows signs of developmental coordination disorder.We are now waiting for a appointment to see a neurologist and my mind is working overtime!

    I worry about his physical development and also his language because it is very repetitve and i think he also has a few sensory issues and struggles to moderate his temper!

    Although these things are not severe iam still worried and do not seem to be getting asny answers,although i now am coming to the conclusion that there may be no answers!

    I just wondered if there was anybody out there whos children had any of these symptoms,if anyone knew of any good websites about sensory issues,or autistic spectrum disrders or developmental coordination disrder.

    I also find myself coming up against lots of people like paediaticians,therapists and teachers who are quite hard to to talk to in the sense that they dont always believe what im saying - any advice how to talk to proffesionals would be most welcome.

    Sorry to ramble just deparate for support.


  8. Great post!
    Very very powerful indeed. Just what I needed to read. Thanks

  9. I love the last bit of advice. I often think our children are much more resilient than their moms. It must be that they aren't wearing their hearts outside their bodies like us moms are with them. I think it will take me a while to be able to actually follow this advice.


  10. I am glad you found that helpful, I did. I have not actually tried this technique yet, but I will. You're talking to someone who once ripped out a magazine article called "Too busy to read this?" and carried it around in her tote for six months.

    Deb, there are a lot of great support groups on the web, but I think that when you are still in the throes of pinning down what is going on, it's best to talk with experts who have met your son. Early on in Max's life, I used to spend a lot of time looking up various types of seizures, and then I'd convince myself he was having some kind or another. More information does not necessarily mean helpful information. I hope the visit with the neurologist is helpful! Keep us posted, and try, try, try to not let yourself worry constantly.

  11. Really good post. I have always been told that worrying is bad, but I don't think it is ALL bad.

  12. Great post Ellen,
    Thanks for sharing it!

  13. Deb, I am feeling a lot of what you seem to be feeling with your kid although probably the diagnoses (or lack thereof!) are different. My son has microcephaly which may or may not be the source of his developmental delays (speech, fine+gross motor...). Neurologically there's nothing wrong, his brain has got all the parts in working order, just maybe there are less of those little grey cells there. Not having a proper diagnosis can be nervewrecking. Feel free to drop by my comment box if you feel like comparing experiences.

  14. i LOVE this advice. thank you so much.


Thanks for sharing!

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