“How Do I Exit the Worry Highway?”

Tom’s* frustration became more understandable as he explored with me his personal pattern of worrying. Earlier he had described his mother as a person who worried excessively about almost everything. He recalled that, as a teenager, he had been prone to worry and now, as an adult, he had honed his worry skills into a well-oiled machine. In his words he had become a master at worrying, perhaps even exceeding his mother’s skills! However, as Tom came to understand the high price he had been paying for his worry pattern his deep frustration led him to a personal choice. It was time to stop his unhealthy practice. His question related to the process: “How do I exit the worry highway?”
Tom’s question reflects both the misery felt by many people and also their desire to find a better life—a life without worry! Many highways in life are difficult to travel, but few are more miserable than the Worry Highway. The roadway itself is treacherous and threatening. The dark clouds hanging overhead seem ominous and oppressive. Travelers along the Worry Highway experience a variety of painful emotions including, among others, feeling “disoriented,” “bewildered,” “perplexed,” “unclear,” “confused,” “unsure,” and “lost.” The anxiety generated by worry becomes a thief that steals the inner joy and peace from the worrier. Most people have spent some time on the Worry Highway, but for some people the highway is the primary road on which they travel through life. Worried travelers become wearied travelers, and, all too often, they remain stuck on a highway that hinders a safe and successful journey in life.

From his personal experience Tom concluded that worry is a negative pattern that involves a person’s mind, emotions, and body. His conclusion was right on target because, without doubt, the pattern does impact a person’s health, his interaction with people, and his ability to resolve the actual problems he encounters along life’s highway. The practice of worry feeds fear and anxiety that feel overwhelming. I’ve heard individuals describe their worry pattern as a type of “brainlock” that paralyzes them from taking positive action to face and resolve their issues. Their frequent mental rumination consumes energy and dominates time, resulting in a lifestyle void of inner serenity and personal peace. Worry can permeate life to such an extent that an individual could be diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder for which professional treatment may be warranted and needed.

Several years ago I read about an experiment with caterpillars that provides a good illustration of our worry patterns. During the mid-1890’s J. Henri Fabre, the French naturalist, was studying Pine Caterpillars. These furry insects were also referred to as “processionary” caterpillars because they traveled in long lines or processions. One caterpillar served as the leader and all the rest lined up behind him, each with his head touching the rear end of the one directly in front of him. On January 30, 1896 Fabre began a unique experiment with the caterpillars. He guided a bunch of them onto the top of a large, circular flowerpot that measured about fifty-four inches in circumference. Once on top of the pot the caterpillars linked up and formed a large, endless circle with no beginning or end. There was no leader as each one blindly followed the one directly in front. Food was available nearby and Fabre assumed that the caterpillars would soon break the circle and move toward the food. However, to his astonishment the caterpillars stayed on the flowerpot for seven days where they marched in endless circles, stopping at night during the cold temperatures but resuming their march the next morning. Finally, after seven days the circle broke as the caterpillars dropped in hunger and exhaustion!**

Just as Fabre’s processionary caterpillars were locked into their circular march so we also can become locked into a similar self-defeating lifestyle of worry. We spend an excessive amount of time mentally marching around a problem without resolving a thing. Literally, we are going in circles and getting nowhere! I read somewhere that worry could be compared to a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but doesn’t get you anywhere! With the preceding thoughts in mind let’s explore two key components:  measuring our worry and managing our worry.

                                                                     MEASURING OUR WORRY

How much do I worry?

All of us are vulnerable to worry. The worry pattern is a negative habit more easily developed than dispelled. Each person would do well to assess his current level of worrying. How “skilled” have I become at worrying? How much time do I devote to worrying? How much energy is expended during the worrying activity? The basic question is simply, “What’s my W.Q.—my Worry Quotient?”  If zero means no worry at all and a ten reflects the highest level of worry, what’s my personal number (0 to 10)? If a score of 1-3 is a Low Level, 4-6 is a Moderate Level, and 7-10 is a High Level, what is my current level of worry (Low, Moderate, or High)? After you’ve determined your own W.Q., you might want to ask your family members or close friends to assess your level from their perspective. Their score could be lower—or higher—than your personal assessment of yourself.
What is the price tag for my worry?

Have you ever thought seriously about the price you pay for your worrying behavior? You could compute the cost in terms of time, money, energy, and suffering. How much time did you spend during the past seven days worrying about something? Your time represents money (so many dollars per hour), so how much did your worrying cost you in a dollar amount? How much personal energy was expended, and how did your decreased energy level impact other activities in your life? In what ways did you personally suffer through your worrying behavior, that is, how much fear, anxiety, and tension did you experience as you worried? How did your worrying affect your relationships with your family, friends, or co-workers? What important goals were ignored, postponed, or messed up simply because you were “too busy worrying?” Has your personal physician ever recommended that you decrease your worry because of elevated blood pressure, gastro-intestinal issues, headaches, or similar health problems? The bottom line is clear:  worrying usually has a very negative impact on a person’s physical, emotional, mental, and relationship health. The price tag of worrying continues to climb as one’s personal health declines.

The cost of worrying does not automatically disappear at some point in time. In fact, once the worry pattern is well-developed, it will probably continue to exist in your life. Like the caterpillars, you’ll continue to march around your “flower pot of life” until you feel hopeless and exhausted. Additionally, you have probably already discovered that “the more you worry, the more you’re likely to worry in the future.” In other words, the pattern tends to feed on itself; this self-fueling feature only increases the misery and you continue to pay the price. 

In addition to assessing the negative costs of worrying we could consider the potential benefits of worry. Does my worry pattern help me in some significant way? Could it somehow be productive for me as an individual or perhaps for my relationships? This exploration of worry might yield some positive results, depending upon one’s definition of “positive.” A little worry might sharpen our five senses and thereby increase our ability to deal with life’s issues. Worrying could bring about a delay or procrastination of specific problem-solving; that postponement might be a welcomed relief. There may be times in life when we’d rather worry (and get nowhere!) than to tackle the problem confronting us. If we prefer to maintain distance in a particular relationship we might use the worrying pattern as a method of pushing away the other person, especially if that person is not attracted to someone who worries a lot. Similar “positive” features of worrying might be identified, but a thorough assessment would lead to a clear conclusion:  the benefits of worry are greatly outweighed by the negative impact of the worrying habit.
                                                                      MANAGING OUR WORRY

After considering the measurement of worry let’s return to Tom’s question:  “How do I exit the Worry Highway?” The term “exit” might suggest elimination. The total elimination of all worry is probably an unrealistic goal, given the fact that our human nature seems inclined to some amount of worrying. Perhaps a more realistic goal would be an effective management of our worry so that we don’t allow it to harm and hurt us excessively. As we strive to achieve this goal we need to develop and implement effective worry management tools. Let’s explore several tools with which we can safeguard our thoughts and release our worries.
Safeguarding our thoughts . . .

The effective management of worry begins by understanding its cause. Simply put, the basic cause of worry is unhealthy thinking rather than the specific circumstances that confront us. It’s tempting to believe that “my circumstances make me worry.” If in fact our circumstances do have the power to “make” us worry, then we are basically helpless and powerless unless we can find a way to change the circumstances. The truth is that our circumstances are just that—circumstances. They have no inherent power to “make us worry.” Oh, yes, we can worry but we do so by choice—we choose to worry! No circumstance forces us to worry. That’s good news! The ability to manage our worry is not directly related to having to change our circumstances; rather, we manage worry as we learn to manage our thinking. Over a period of time, usually years, we train or condition our brains toward patterns of thought that are inherently unhealthy because the thoughts are inaccurate and/or excessive. These thoughts that generate worry are actually distortions of reality, but somehow they seem real to us.

To decrease worry we need to work at two specific thought-management tasks. First, we need to reject negative thoughts as soon as they appear on the horizon and refuse to allow them entrance into our “inner space” where they will generate the negative emotions associated with worry. Secondly, we need to deal assertively with any negative thoughts that have somehow “gotten through” and have already begun to cause problems. We identify the specific negative thought pattern and work hard to argue against it by coming up with realistic, believable counter-thoughts. The counter-thoughts overcome and defeat the negative thoughts, and, as a result, the negative emotions do not continue to be reinforced and therefore lose their destructive power.

I recall a man with whom I worked years ago who struggled frequently with excessive worry. He held a high-level position at a nearby Army base and was afraid that his worry and depression might compromise his ability to fulfill his job duties effectively. To enter the Army base he had to pass through a checkpoint (or “gate”) on a daily basis. With that information in mind I asked this particular client to imagine that he had at the entrance to his brain a little gatehouse with its own policeman who serves as his personal gatekeeper. This gatekeeper uses two rubber stamps, one that marks an approaching thought as “True” and the other that marks the thought as “False.” The main duty of the gatekeeper is to monitor every thought that approaches the gatehouse. He discerns the thoughts (whether healthy or unhealthy), stamps as “False” and rejects all unhealthy thoughts, and stamps as “True” and allows entrance to all healthy thoughts. When the gatekeeper is functioning effectively only those thoughts that are inherently true and healthy are allowed entrance into the “inner brain” where emotions are generated. However, if the gatekeeper is not doing his job and allows false and unhealthy thoughts to gain access, all kinds of negative, painful emotions will be generated. For example, if the approaching thought is “I’m a total failure so there’s no use in staying alive” and the gatekeeper automatically stamps the thought as “True,” that thought will enter the “inner brain” and cause great emotional damage.  Here’s the bottom line: your emotions result from whatever your personal gatekeeper stamps as “True.” If in fact the incoming thought is true and healthy and the gatekeeper marks it as “True,” the individual will experience emotions that are consistent with external reality. In contrast, if the incoming thought is clearly false and unhealthy but the gatekeeper stamps it as “True,” the emotions generated will be distorted in that they are not consistent with external reality.  However, these distorted emotions will feel very “real” to the individual. I asked this worrier to imagine what will happen if the gatekeeper has not been trained properly and therefore has no clue about how to discern false, unhealthy thoughts from true, healthy thoughts. Perhaps all thoughts look the same to him, so he stamps every incoming thought as “True.” I asked him to imagine what will happen if the gatekeeper does not stay alert, that is, he falls asleep or becomes careless and just stamps every incoming thought as “True.” Or, he might realize that the incoming thought is false and should be denied entrance, but he is not willing to put forth the effort to counter it and kick it out. To this particular man the conclusion was clear: we are in big trouble if our personal gatekeeper is untrained, undiscerning, and unassertive. A non-functioning gatekeeper is an open invitation to worry and to the anxiety and depression that results from excessive worry. Our challenge is to train our personal gatekeeper and to keep him alert and functioning on a continual basis. He is essential to our work in safeguarding our minds and our emotions. This man used my “gatekeeper concept” as a practical tool that helped him manage his worry pattern more effectively than he had been doing. Likewise, the concept can help all of us to maintain healthy thinking and healthy emotions by decreasing out tendency to worry.
Several years ago I began working on a “Worry Management Model” that could serve as a helpful tool in decreasing our level of worry. Let me share briefly the progress I’ve made so far. I recommend that we use pen and paper to write down our responses as we work through the model. The first step in the model is to identify the specific topic or issue that I’m thinking about or considering. Since any issue will usually fall into one of two clear categories (“in my control” or “out of my control”), I try to decide the category into which this particular issue fits better. Let’s say the issue is in my control. Then I have two basic options:  I can problem-solve it or I can ignore it. Alternatively, let’s suppose that the issue is out of my control. In that case I have two basic options:  I can worry about it or I can let it go. This either-or approach will fit most situations. Some issues might arise that appear to contain some elements of “in my control” and other elements that are “out of my control.” In that case our challenge is to sort out the elements and assign them to the correct category.

This model might need a third option to cover certain issues that are in my control, specifically, the option of worrying about some problem that really is fixable. If I’m facing a problem that is in my control but I do not possess good problem-solving skills, I could fuss and fret about the issue and never get around to any actual work designed to solve it. Any tendencies toward laziness, perfectionism, and procrastination could delay problem-solving and promote inner worry. Clearly, the remedy for this type of worry is the development and usage of effective problem-solving skills. These important skills include the ability to identify and use appropriate human resources or professional assistance that can offset our lack of personal expertise. The solution could be expressed in a simple manner:  “If I don’t have the knowledge or skills to solve the problem myself, I will find someone who can fix it.” The goal is to increase personal competence, and the resulting additional confidence should decrease our tendency to worry.

Clearly, we cannot personally problem-solve something that is out of our control, so our options are to worry about it or let it go. Worry is more likely to occur when we’re dealing with something that is outside of our control but we don’t know how to let the issue go or how to release it. Perhaps we do not give ourselves permission to let it go, possibly because we believe that we should be able to fix anything and everything, regardless of the amount of actual control we might have over the problem. Such an expectation is very unrealistic but some people have a hard time admitting their human limitations. The alternative to worry is effective release. So, what specific process do we use for releasing issues that we cannot control? Most worriers with whom I’ve talked have admitted that they did not have a current process, but most of them were very interested in developing a workable process. Because of its importance let’s explore this “letting-it-go process” a little further.

Searching for a Release Process . . .

For our personal health and well-being we need to learn how to problem-solve issues effectively. We also need to learn how to release issues that are not solvable because they are out of our personal control. Unfortunately, most of us tend to hold on to and worry about issues that are clearly in our “Out of my Control” category. This tendency reminds me of a poem written by the 20th century poet Eleanor Hammond entitled “From a Street Corner.” 
          “Like snails I see the people go
           Along the pavement, row on row;
           And each one on his shoulder bears
           His coiling shell of petty cares-
           The spiral of his own affairs.
          Some peer about, some creep on blind
          But not one leaves his shell behind.
          And I, who think I see so well,
          Peer at the rest but cannot tell
          How much is cut off by my shell.” 

Let’s briefly consider four tools or techniques that can help us to leave our shell (or our “load”) behind. These tools are adapted from material presented in an earlier article I wrote called “Relationship Travels:  Unloading the Trash.” The term “worry-trash” is a fitting description of our worries which deserve to be unloaded and left behind.
(1) Fill the garbage bag . . .
Take a common black garbage bag and designate it as your “personal worry bag.” Identify the specific issue about which you’re tempted to worry and write the item on a piece of paper. Then either crumple up or tear up the paper. Next, speak to the paper in an assertive manner with words like, “You are out of my control and I cannot problem-solve you. Therefore, you are worry-trash and it’s time to take you out. You are going into the garbage bag forever. I’m letting you go. Goodbye!” Throw the crumpled-up paper (or the torn-up pieces) into the bag. Experience the relief and peace of unloading that one piece of trash. Now it’s time for a final step:  take the trash bag to an outside trash can or dumpster. Allow yourself to feel relieved and thankful as you walk away from your trash. If the item you unloaded comes to your mind in the future, simply tell the item clearly and firmly, “You’re in the trash bin. Now stay where you belong!” Picture yourself slamming the trash bin cover down on the worry-trash and heave a big sigh of relief. Then return to the activity in which you were engaged. To encourage and to expedite periodic worry-trash removal you may want to keep an empty trash bag hanging somewhere in your house so it will be handy for you to use whenever a new worry-trash issue materializes. Use this process as often as needed to keep yourself clean from worry-trash buildup.

(2) Flush out the system . . . 

I recall being told once by my car mechanic that the car’s radiator needed to be flushed out to improve performance. He explained the importance of removing dirt and other impurities from the cooling system so that the car would not overheat. Similarly, we as human beings can “overheat” when our “worry-trash” builds up and clogs up our emotional system. Regular flushings may be a workable solution. But how do we flush? Here’s one practical approach that is affordable and effective. Choose to believe that “worry-trash belongs in the sewer.” With that in mind designate a roll of toilet tissue and a magic marker or pen as your helpers and place them somewhere in your bathroom. When you identify something as a worry-trash item go to the bathroom, take a piece or two of the tissue, write on the tissue a few key words that capture the essence of your trash, and then flush the tissue down the toilet. Be sure to say goodbye (and good riddance!) to the trash. Take a moment to feel the relief and peace of letting go of the emotional burden. In using this “letting-go” tool you are flushing out your emotional system, a process you will want to repeat as often as you identify worry-trash build-up within yourself.  Just like we need to flush out our vehicle’s radiator to clear away dirt or impurities, so we need regular “flushings” to keep our “emotional radiator” clean and functional.

(3) Fire up the altar . . .

Some individuals use their spiritual faith to “take out the trash” by offering their personal worries up to God. I recall one lady who benefitted from the “fire up the altar” technique. She chose a suitable metal container as her sacrificial altar. She wrote down on pieces of paper the things about which she had been worrying and placed the papers in the container. Then she said a prayer to God in which she asked Him to receive her burdens and take care of them however He deemed best. Carefully and safely she burned the papers and watched the paperwork being transformed into heat and light. As the papers disappeared in the flames she imagined by faith that God was taking them upon Himself, relieving her of the burden. She prayed a thanksgiving prayer and asked God to help her in the “letting go” process. She repeated her spiritual ritual every time a new worry-trash item became known to her. According to this lady, the altar technique provided an effective means through which she periodically would “take out the trash.” Her strategy could also work for us when our travels in life are hindered by worry-trash buildup.

Many Christians have shared with me that their faith in God was extremely helpful to them in their efforts to refrain from worrying about things in life. Sometimes they mentioned specific Scriptures they read and applied, such as Jesus’ teachings about worry recorded in Matthew 6:24-34. When spiritual faith is present and practiced the “fire up the altar” technique can be used to release and decrease one’s personal worries.

(4) Find a burial plot . . .

Some people practice effective worry-trash removal by burying the items in a selected spot. They will write the items on paper or will select some object that symbolizes the trash. The papers or objects are placed in a box or a makeshift “casket” that is buried underground in the back yard or in another appropriate location. The burial could be preceded by a brief but forceful “goodbye” message. Periodic interments are completed as new trash is identified. A variation of this technique was used by one Christian lady who placed her “worry item” paper in a large Bible she kept in her sunroom. She “buried” her worry-trash in her Bible and later reminded herself that “There’s no need to worry about it; I’ve released it and God has it.”

As you consider these four worry-trash release strategies, please realize that no one technique will work perfectly to remove 100% of our worrying behavior. However, a reduction of 40-60-80% of our worrying pattern will enable and equip us to travel through life more safely and successfully than trying to move forward with the total load of worry-trash on our shoulders.
Concluding Thoughts . . .

Recently as I pondered the negative impact of worry and our need to stop the worry pattern, I recalled a song made popular by the folk music singers, The Kingston Trio. They called the song “A Worried Man” and it contains the words “It takes a worried man to sing a worried song; I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long.” Perhaps we can adapt the meaning a bit and encourage ourselves to exit the Worry Highway. We may be worried now and we may be singing a worried song, but we can exclaim with hopeful anticipation “but I won’t be worried long.”

If you’ve been traveling through life on the Worry Highway you may be frustrated enough to desire an exit from the current lifestyle and an entrance onto a roadway that offers more inner peace and joy. Hopefully, the material presented in this short article will both encourage and equip you to start moving away from worry toward a better destination of peace.

If your personal efforts do not seem sufficient to overcome your worrying pattern, you would do well to seek professional assistance from a mental health therapist who works with anxiety management. The therapist could also work with you in the development of problem-solving skills. People tend to worry less when they feel competent and confident about their ability to tackle and resolve the specific problems they face in life, referring of course to those problems that are within their personal control. Additionally, some people choose to take anti-anxiety medication as they simultaneously work hard to develop effective worry-management tools. These efforts will probably stretch your “comfort zone” a bit but the resulting peace and joy will be well worth the hard work.     

I wish you the best as you strive to travel through life without worry. And, as always, I wish you the very best in all of your relationship travels.

*Not the actual name of this individual. Tom represents people in general who worry.

**Fabre, J. Henri (1916). The Life of the Caterpillar. Dodd, Mead, and Company, Inc.


To read Dr. Baker’s article entitled “Relationship Travels:  Unloading the Trash” that was mentioned in this current article, just click on the title below.
                    “Relationship Travels: Unloading the Trash”

Dr. Baker has also written articles about anxiety management and depression. To see a list of these articles and related resources, please consult the Mental Health category in the Resources section or you can click on the link below.
                    Mental Health Resources

Video:  In a television interview about worry Dr. Baker discussed the development of a personalized Worry Toolbox. To see this short video just click on the title below or click on the image to the right.

                      "Less Worry--More Peace!"

(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)


                (Blog #MH1308)


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