Author: Deiric McCann
Discover a practical and memorable NAIL approach for dealing with worry as it arises.
Are you over worrying about anything right now? Have you worried about anything over the last few weeks? Do you think it’s likely that you’ll worry about something in the future? If you answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions, then we invite you to check out Deiric McCann’s recent TEDx Talk ‘The Invisible Epidemic – Worry.’ Or continue reading below to dive into the content.
Since COVID hit I have spent almost all of my time delivering virtual programs to help people deal effectively with the stress that is a very natural and normal reaction to the impact of the pandemic upon our lives. I have hosted thousands of people through my programs over the last 6 months.
In a recent session, a 28-year-old woman stayed behind to ask my advice. Let’s call her Anna. Anna told me that she was blessed to be married to a man that loved her every bit as much as she loved him, has two beautiful two-and-a-half year-old twins, and has a job she loves, where she’s widely regarded as a top performer.
Since COVID, Anna has started working from home. So has her husband. Suddenly, she, her husband, AND the twins are spending most of their waking lives in their one-bedroom apartment, which is starting to feel very small indeed. They’re both feeling the pressure on their relationship – with friction and arguments that were never there before.
Anna explained that she had recently found herself repeatedly thinking ‘what if our relationship falls apart under this pressure and I end up alone with the twins?’, and ‘what if the pressure of that affects my performance at work?’, and ‘what if I lose my job?’, and ‘what if I can’t pay the mortgage?’, and ‘what if…’ and ‘what if…’, and ‘what if…’.
I’d like to share one small part of an approach I shared with Anna for breaking the tyranny of the ‘what if’ question that is driving an invisible epidemic of worry alongside the very visible COVID pandemic.
How Your Brain Manages Danger and Fear
To understand the way worry affects us, we need to understand how our brains manage danger and fear.
If you were to push a pen into your ear, and another into your eye (please don’t actually do so! 😊) – then where they cross would be the center of the emotional brain – on a small almond-shaped organ called the amygdala. There’s an amygdala on both sides of the brain.
The amygdala is like the ‘smoke detector of the brain’ – continually sniffing the environment for threats. It’s important to under that, for the amygdala, ‘threat’ has a very broad definition– it includes anything it hasn’t seen before, anything it doesn’t have complete control over, anything anyway uncertain, or any clear and present danger – like the danger of being infected with COVID, for example.
If something happens that causes it to perceive such a threat, it kicks off a completely automatic process that makes your heart beat faster to rush blood to your arms and legs – to get you ready to either run from, or fight your way out of trouble.
You’ve probably heard of this ‘fight or flight’ response – undoubtedly it was an effective response to ancient threats like saber-toothed tigers but is somewhat less effective against an angry phone call from your boss or the threat of Coronavirus infection. But brains evolve slowly – and we’re stuck with this response.
When this fight or flight response is triggered, the danger signals emanating from the emotional brain can often be so overpowering that they can overwhelm the thinking brain – and you are now acting solely out of emotion, and completely on automatic pilot, with no rational thinking going on.
This stress response also switches off your immune system, your digestion and your sex drive – these are not important when your life is under threat. Additionally, you’re also slammed full of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that get you hyper-charged, faster, stronger, and more focused than you’ve ever been before.
This is why when you’re stressed you find yourself jumpy, too wired to sleep, and full of aches and pains and more open to suffer minor ailments – this incredibly useful response takes a lot out of your system.
This collection of sensations and reactions is the emotion that comes with fear – we call it anxiety. And it all starts with brain’s equivalent of hyperventilating – generating an endless succession of questions, all of which begin with ‘What if?!’ When these What ifs cascade out of control they can sometimes trigger our fear response – and we experience the same anxiety we’d experience if our lives were under threat.
In moderation , worry is OK – it’s utterly normal. Some amount of worrying has helped you solve problems and make breakthroughs you otherwise wouldn’t have made. But sometimes it can get out of control and crowd everything else out of your life.
That’s when you need to take action to stop that cascade of thoughts in its tracks.
When you’re gripped by intense worry your emotional brain is in control, and you simply don’t have access to the full range of cognitive faculties that you normally would.
You need to have a checklist for how you’ll respond to worry, and you need to have rehearsed with that checklist BEFORE you’re gripped by worry. Practicing your worry response BEFORE you begin to worry is key – so it can be automatic when you need it.
Over the last few months of working with so many people troubled by chronic worry, and the anxiety that often comes with it, I have created an easy-to-remember four-step checklist that you can adopt to interrupt this ‘what if’ thought pattern to NAIL worry before it nails you (N.A.I.L. Slide):
Step one: N – Notice the ‘what if?’
When it arises and think: ‘I’m beginning to worry’. This may seem counterintuitive, but brings the thinking brain online, which begins to regulate the emotional brain. Already you’re disrupting the pattern that normally cascades from the first ‘what if’ into a snowstorm of ‘what ifs’.
Step 2: A – Acknowledge it
Don’t try to resist worry. It’s normal for your brain to do this – it’s ok to say ‘I don’t like this’ – but allow it to be, saying to yourself: ‘It’s normal for me to respond this way’. Don’t try to push it away.
Step 3: I – Investigate.
Replace ‘what if?’ with ‘what is?’ Is there anything I can do about this right now? If yes, then just do it! If no, then it’s very likely to be something that hasn’t yet happened – research suggests that 85% of the things we worry about never come to pass -and you can adopt the last step, L, to deal with it.
Step 4: L – Leave it until later.
Make a formal appointment with yourself to worry about this at a specific time, for a specific time. And keep that appointment. Sit down with a pen and paper and work through all of the solutions you can think of to the issue facing you. When that appointment is over, go back to your life. If you feel the need, set another worry appointment – and do that until you feel you have a useful perspective on the issue.
The bottom line is: you will always have worry – worrying is one of those things that our brains have evolved to do. But you don’t have to suffer non-stop worry, or the anxiety that sometimes accompanies it – you can learn to manage it.
This checklist is not a silver bullet – but if you rehearse with a checklist like this, you’ll find that you’ll begin to tame worry and prevent it taking over your life: you can nail worry before it nails you!
Hope this is helpful to you, let me know if you have any questions! If you enjoyed the TEDx talk, I’d really appreciate a like or a share on the YouTube Link to help share the message.
Learn more about Resilience & Stress Managment Programs with Deiric.