The diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder can seem a bit vague. This disorder is defined by persistent feelings of anxiety and worry which are disproportional to any real threats or danger. The individual having this diagnosis may label themselves as a chronic worrier. Sometimes the anxiety begins in childhood and continues into the adult years. Biology and genetics play a role in developing this disorder but life stressors are also a major factor contributing to feelings of anxiety and fear. One of the challenges in coping with generalized anxiety disorder is that the worry and anxiety can seem to come out of the blue. It is like fighting an invisible demon you can’t identify. Figuring out what you are really worried about can give you something concrete to work on as part of your treatment.
In this post I am going to give you some strategies for identifying your personal worry triggers and what you can do about them.
1. Create a worry journal.
If you are going to worry anyway, you might as well coral it and set a limit on how much time you spend worrying. Get a blank journal, set aside a certain amount of time each day to write, and get those worries out on paper. Seeing your worries written down makes them more tangible and less vague. At the top of the page you can include a starter phrase such as “I am worried about…” or “I feel anxious because…” Set a timer for 10-15 minutes and let yourself write whatever comes to mind. Do not stop or hesitate to correct spelling or punctuation. Try not to pick your pen up from the page or interrupt the flow with self critique or second guessing. This is not some graded essay but a way to tap into your true thoughts and feelings. It is a very powerful medium and you may be shocked at what you discover about yourself.
2. Look for patterns or themes in your worry journal.
Are there some worries which are persistent and keep showing up in most of your writings? Some broad categories of worry may focus on relationships, job and career, planning for the future, illness, parenting, and finances. Are there any unusual themes in your worry journal? For example a mother may be plagued with an irrational fear or worry that her children will die. Another person may worry that they will somehow be homeless despite their financial security. It is especially important to take a look at any of these more atypical worries because for some people these types of irrational worries may cause the most anxiety.
3. Identify which worries cause you the most discomfort, fear, and anxiety.
Which of your worries seem to leave the most emotional residue after you are finished writing? Are there any worries which provoke a stronger and more intense physiological response? When you write about certain themes are there times when you react by a change in breathing, heart rate, or perspiration? These are the worries you may want to target first for intervention from your therapist or counselor.
4. Pick a worry and explore it.
Sometimes worries lose their power when we keep asking questions. Take one of your worries and write it at the top of one your journal pages. For example, you may write “I am worried about my health.” Then follow up with the reason why as in “I am worried about my health because…I don’t want to let my family down.” Follow your thoughts wherever they may lead. Take the last thing you write and add a “because” or what it means for you. For example, “Letting my family down means that I am not able to take care of them.” You may be surprised that many of our worries are really about vastly different issues than we originally thought they were about. This type of exploration can bring our worry demons into the light where we can see them and talk about what is really troubling us.
5. Purposefully play the “what if” game.
A lot of people might tell you to stay away from the “what ifs” if you suffer from anxiety. Yet if our mind is going there anyway, we might as well make some use of the information this exploration can give to us. For example someone may excessively worry about their losing their job. Write down a lead in phrase of, “If I lose my job then….” and finish that sentence. Keep going until you reach your extreme conclusion. You may end up with some disastrous revelation such as you will lose your friends and family and end up homeless. This is not to say that this situation has not happened to people. For every worry, there may be a particle of reality which keeps the possibility of disaster alive. Yet if we go back to each of our “what ifs” we can combat these possible bad outcomes with positive actions. For example we can counter our fear of job loss by realistic measures of our job security. Even if our worry is legitimate, there are preventive strategies to keep the odds low that our worst fears will not come true. Replace the worry with real action. For the example given, these actions may include keeping your resume up to date, creating a savings account to buffer any loss of income, and actively looking for other job opportunities.
Worries are much easier to handle if we can identify them. Most of what we do worry about is the unknown. Our imagination likes to fill in the blanks with dire consequences and worst case scenarios. As Mark Twain once said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” How true this is. Worry begins with a thought in our head. It takes some creativity to worry. This same creativity can be used to expose our worries and to find real solutions to our problems.
We would love to hear from you. If any of you try the exercises above I would love some feedback on how they worked for you. Remember that self-help exercises cannot replace the professional guidance of a therapist or counselor. You can use these exercises as a starting point of discussion with your mental health practitioner.
Published On: June 13, 2011