Undoing the Worrying Habit
Once acquired, the habit of worrying
seems hard to stop. We're raised to worry
and aren't considered "grown up"
until we perfect the art. Teenagers are
told: "you'd better start worrying
about your future". If your worries
aren't at least as frequent as your bowel
movements, you're seen as irresponsible,
childish, aimless. That's a "responsible
adult" game rule.
To the extent that worrying is learned/conditioned
behaviour, it can be undone. There are
psychological gimmicks for undoing the
worry habit. There are also obstacles.
Centuries-old cultural conditioning has
given us a nasty neurosis: the belief
that happiness must be "earned".
It can be "earned" only by enduring
unpleasantness (eg work, pain, misery).
But how do you know if you've endured
enough unpleasantness to deserve
happiness? Another unspoken game rule:
"responsible adults" can never
endure enough unpleasantness to truly
Laid on top of the first neurosis is
the idea that spending money will make
you happy. This is toffee coating on a
bad puritan apple. If you spend enough
money to give you the (advertised) conditions
for happiness, the neurosis emerges in
the form of apparently random worries,
guilt, "feeling shitty", etc.
Worrying is the easiest and most popular
way to negate happiness. (See sidebar
So: we never stop working, we never stop
spending money, we're never really happy
ideal conditions, coincidentally,
for a certain type of slave economy.
You won't stop worrying if you think
it serves you. So it's a good idea to
distinguish the fight-or-flight response
(a healthy bodily reaction to immediate
danger) from worry (a psychological problem).
By making this distinction, you're less
likely to overrate the value of worrying.
The fight-or-flight response (FOF) is
useful on rare occasions of real danger.
In animals, the FOF responds to "external"
stimuli; in humans it responds also to
worries about imagined dangers, and to
stimuli: "what will people
think about me?", etc.
Worrying is never useful. It handicaps
and diminishes us. The more it triggers
the FOF with imagined threats, the more
it prevents clear thinking (which is probably
our greatest survival asset).
Rearranging the mental furniture
There's a useful gimmick to help stop
worrying (we've already mentioned it briefly
in How to Avoid
Responsibilities, but it's worth
looking at in detail). You simply cultivate
the habit of postponing worrying. Your
mind becomes (re-)conditioned to not dwell
on worries in the present.
The trick is that whenever you feel plagued
by a worrying thought, note it down on
a "worry sheet" (a piece of
paper set aside for the purpose)
you can then forget about it, knowing
that you plan to worry later.
This deceptively simple technique is
effective because it bypasses the psychological
obstacles mentioned above. Your mind is
"fooled" into thinking that
you haven't given up worrying. Meanwhile,
you lose the habit of worrying in the
You can plan to revisit noted worries
at a time when you're worry-free. Or you
can postpone worries indefinitely. That
might sound bizarre, but then so is the
notion that you must experience endless
unhappiness (eg worrying) before you're
allowed to be happy.
More likely is that when using this technique
you will simply forget your original worries
they will never have bothered you.
What follows is slightly
more esoteric than above. Feel free to
Strange as it may seem,
you want what you worry about.
Or at least that's what you inadvertently
tell your brain when you worry. On one
level, your brain can't process "negatives".
If you tell it: "don't
think about crashing the car",
it can't help being "attracted"
to the thought/image of crashing.
is about preventing/resisting/avoiding
X. Subconsciously, it's a reinforcement
of wanting X (at least to the extent
of wanting the experience of X
in your mind). Consciously, you're pressing
on the brake; subconsciously you're pressing
on the accelerator.
The difficulty is
that your "feet" (to continue
with the analogy) are tied together. So,
to stop accelerating, you must also lift
your foot from the brake. But you refuse
to do this (which might be sensible in
a car; but your brain isn't a car).
You somehow have to
persuade (or con) your brain into thinking
it's safe to lift both feet from the worry
pedals. For serious anxiety disorders,
phobias, etc, many people go into therapy.
The end result, if successful, is equivalent
to learning to lift both feet (ie to "let
go" of the worry/fear).
For relatively "minor"
worry problems, you can use psychological
gimmicks to "con" your brain
into letting go of the worry eg
the worry postponement and "focused
punishment" techniques described
above (both have the effect of getting
you to "lift both feet" from