When there is an obvious problem on which to focus fearful attention, the mind typically latches onto that problem, labeling it for future reference and keeping a sharp (mental) eye on the source of the danger. When there is no obvious or immediate problem, the anxious mind searches our memories and imaginations for potential sources of danger, zooming in on certain "favorite" fears. Fear always gets our attention, and this is necessary for survival when the danger is real. But even when the danger is remembered or imagined, and even when some of the anxiety is an automatic result of too much hurrying, fear still gets our attention and keeps us alert, keeps us worrying.
- So, as we go about our busy lives, we accidentally train ourselves to worry more. The more we practice hurrying and worrying, the better we get at it, the more automatic it becomes, until it seems as if there is no choice. For some of us, worrying becomes part of our self-image, an uncomfortable fact of life. When it gets particularly bad, we may try to cope with medication, or alcohol or drugs, or any number of compulsive behaviors that offer temporary relief from the chronic worried state.
What can be done?
For individuals with acute and severe anxiety, it is important to seek help from a mental health professional who can assess the problem and recommend appropriate treatment. For those who experience chronic worrying that may be aggravated or reinforced by a frantic hurried lifestyle, it is necessary to break the cycle of hurrying and worrying and learn to slow down. Simple? Perhaps. Easy? No. Chronic worriers have learned their habit well by practicing constantly for a number of years. And some of us are genetically predisposed to higher levels of anxiety to begin with. It is not easy to slow down and sort out the "real" dangers from a thousand and one potential threats. Self-calming is a learnable skill. Unfortunately, it is not a skill many of us will learn in school. Like any skill, it requires a certain amount of trial and error and a lot of practice. One worrier may start by practicing deep rhythmic breathing, because we breathe differently when we are afraid, and deep calm breathing helps to break out of the physiological and emotional state of anxiety. Another may focus on slowing down the pace with which he walks, or drives, consciously counteracting the hurrying habit. Some may find music helps them to shift into a slower, more comfortable state. Others may utilize visual imagery that has a calming effect for them. Stress management gurus encourage busy executives to turn off telephone ringers and strictly limit the amount of time spent responding to email and voicemail. Many find powerful support in traditional religious rituals that embody calming and centering practices and are further reinforced by deeply held values and community. The variety of interventions is almost limitless, and each worrier must experiment and discover which new behaviors work best, then practice, practice, practice until healthier habits are formed. Research in treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder has demonstrated that persistent practice of skills such as these can result in measurable changes in brain function without medication. Cultivating patience and confidence in self-calming skills takes time and persistence. It may be helpful to have a therapist, coach, or support group to help you stick to the program. But in the end, you will encounter another paradox. By slowing down, you will feel like you have more time.