I like that Frank Tallis has written a relatively small book on How to Stop Worrying. Although I'm much better than I used to be, I still worry too much sometimes myself, and it's nice to think that there could be a simple solution to a seemingly complex problem. And it turns out there is.
Worry fills the gap between when we realise that we have a problem, and when we have a solution in place to address it. It's our brain's way of making sure we pay attention to our problems; the psychological analogy to physical pain. If we don't do anything about the problem, the worry gets worse until we're forced to take action. Worry, like pain, is our friend. But it's also a kind of mental suffering we'd rather escape given the chance.
The solution to worry is quite simple: take effective action to solve the problem. So the bulk of this book is actually about problem-solving techniques. Taking action to address the problem immediately starts to put our mind at ease, and if the action is effective in solving the problem, the worry ceases altogether.
Problem-solving is a skill that develops and improves each time we use it. It involves making decisions, taking action and following through on them. Often if we lack confidence we avoid making decisions, and this compounds our problems. Avoiding decisions reduces our confidence, making it harder next time we face a choice in life. The solution is to make decisions using some kind of problem-solving process, so that we learn to make better decisions each time and avoid getting stuck in indecision.
A basic problem-solving process involves:
Defining the problem
Thinking up solutions (brainstorming)
Making decisions to choose a solution (weighing up pros and cons)
Taking action to implement the chosen solution, and then
Evaluating how effective the result was so that we can refine the process next time.
Negative thinking and worry tend to happen together. Often we think of our setbacks as failures instead of learning opportunities. Sometimes we need to challenge our negative thoughts in order to get the worry to stop. Examples of negative thoughts to challenge include:
- Black and white thinking
- Blaming ourselves
- Predicting a pessimistic future
- Dismissing successes
If persistent worry morphs into uncontrolled anxiety, it may be worth exploring with a psychologist, psychiatrist or counsellor. My own experience is that there's a time and place for professional help, another for talking things over with a friend, and another for problem-solving techniques like those in How to Stop Worrying.