Relax, it’s possible to unravel a worried mind
Remember the movie “Bridge of Spies,” when Tom Hanks asks the alleged spy whether he’s worried about being killed if he’s returned to Russia?
The alleged spy’s wry reply, “Would it help?”
Worry is a habit, and millions feel stress and anxiety every day. Are you one of them?
It’s normal to feel some of the stress and strain of life, but there are new and sustainable approaches to meet those needs that re-program your brain to interrupt worry patterns. The result is a happier and healthier you.
When a major event happens in life, do you grow from the experience, or are you never able to let go?
Studies have shown that long term, continuous activation of the stress-response system can disrupt major body systems and shorten your life.
Always tuning into TV news, constant scrolling on your smart phone, or listening to the car radio’s repetitive chatter keeps you unbalanced in a chaotic world.
Brad Pendergraft is a licensed clinical social worker, master practitioner of neuro-linguistic programing, certified hypnotherapist and co-founder of a national crisis and trauma response company. His book, “The Un-Worried Brain,” introduces strategies that interrupt the worrying mind.
He says worrying and stressing out gives you the illusion of having some impact. You are always in a state of stress, focusing on things over which you have no personal control.
For boomers and seniors who are in life transitions, there is a specific set of fears. Lifestyle changes, health issues and other personal challenges worry them.
“People mistake habits, like worrying, as permanent conditions,” Pendergraft says. “They say they are a worrying person, that it’s just who they are. They believe it is a built-in personality trait and they can’t change. I’m here to tell you that this not true. Those beliefs keep them from changing.”
People assume that by attending to their worrisome thoughts, they are doing something about the situation.
“They are not doing something,” he counters. “They are just continually worrying.”
Pendergraft speaks from experience.
On the day he turned 30, he applied for a job delivering pizzas.
He was not succeeding in business, was in a constant state of stress and anxiety, and getting deeper in debt by the day.
Since he was 8 years old, he’d dreamed of having a positive impact on the world and making people happy. It’s why he became a therapist. But he left the profession feeling like a failure.
After eight months on his new job, his perspective changed. The key, he found, was taking action. He eventually left the pizza job as their top salesman by learning to take the right steps in stressful situations.
Since then, he has taught hundreds of counselors the strategies to help overcome crisis and emotional suffering.
He asks them, “What if you substituted action for worry? Might solutions come to you?”
Pendergraft counseled first responders in New York City after the tragedy of 9/11. He also noticed how their worrying minds contributed to post-traumatic stress.
What he learned was that those officers who were most affected had habits of worry and anxiety. Their worrying tended to magnify because they were used to worrying and used to being fearful, he says.
They took longer to heal.
Since then, he has learned to translate research on the mind and the brain into strategies that help people change the way they experience life.
“People who worry get something out of it,” Pendergraft says. “That’s why I recommend reducing exposure to repetitive negativity. It’s one of the best steps you can take. Listening can feel as if they are protecting themselves by giving attention to the issues but that is not what the brain takes in. What you pay attention to determines your quality of life.”
He says the world is stressful, but lives do not have to be stressful.
“People feel they have to deal with what’s going on in the world,” he says. “But they are telling their brains to worry. This approach does not provide relief.”
The discovery of the neuro-plasticity of the brain allows change, if people let it, Pendergraft says. “Focusing on the external world can make you feel powerful but the only person who can change is yourself.”
He recommends reading “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge.
It tells the story of a son whose father had severe brain damage and how the son helped his father recover by using strategies that produced new neurons.
“He proved brains can change,” Pendergraft says. “It requires effort to lay down new circuits. If change is so dramatic as in the tale of the son and father, why can’t we do it? Part of it is that, once we are in pain, our limitations become so familiar to us and become more comforting than the unknown.”
There are four simple processes, or strategies, to interrupt the habit of thinking, he says. It starts with conscious attention to the moment of choice, of asking oneself where you really want to go.
These strategies “open the world to you and the brain responds to the new triggers,” Pendergraft says.
Incidentally, he says that parents who always worry about their children do so because it makes them feel close to them. They feel if they don’t worry then they show they don’t care.
“There are different ways to feel close to children,” he says. “Instead of living to worry, write down something you feel grateful for them. Don’t send it. The parent’s worry was about her fears and she learned the power of gratitude, a powerful emotion. Ask yourself what you are getting out of worrying and what it is costing you. Be honest about why you worry.”
Pendergraft says the critical component of change is believing you can. You can’t become less stressed if you don’t know what to do about it.
He says that people always stressed out at work find a kind of prestige in that. It gives them status when they feel they work harder than anyone else. He recommends getting prestige by feeling connected in other ways.
He noticed another area of conflict when his father retired and began “interfering” in his wife’s territory — the kitchen. His father, who had organized hundreds of people in his business, had to go back to work to be happy.
“Years later, they discussed this,” Pendergraft says of his parents. “Some retired couples need to feel challenged, so they take classes at universities, they go on educational cruises. They need to be engaged. There are lots of healthy ways to fulfill needs without conflict.”
Implementing new strategies takes practice.
“Every expert in the world got there through practice,” Pendergraft says. “If a person has been practicing worrying for 50 years, they’ve probably gotten good at it.”
But take heart — it won’t take 50 years to become “unworried,” he says. ☸