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A top clinical psychologist, you CAN control your anxiety habit

We’ve all suffered since the pandemic began. Rarely have so many people been so gripped by worry, for their health and that of loved ones, for their jobs and for the outlook as a whole.

In the eye of the storm, at the pandemic’s peak, we’re in the midst of a collective anxiety like no other, reflected in urgent, doom-laden discussions on social media and in the offices of clinical psychologists like me.

Most of us are able to keep that worry under control. As the vaccine rolls out, we see that chink of light at the end of the tunnel looming a little larger. However bad it seems now, we know happier times lie ahead, and many of us will ultimately regain a healthy, balanced attitude to life’s usual ups and downs.

Gwendoline Smith who has been treating worry for over 40 years, has penned a guide to help you conquer your overthinking habit. Pictured: Serial fretter, Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones

And yet plenty of us will carry on struggling, for anxiety itself has long been at epidemic levels. In 2013, the last year for which there are population-level figures, there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety reported in the UK, with women twice as likely as men to suffer. Its less severe form, worrying — or overthinking, as it’s often called now — is so ingrained in our culture that we barely register the harm it’s doing.

Every family has a ‘worrier’ or two — again, usually women — who might suffer insomnia because of it, or low self-esteem, or find it damages their work or personal relationships.

If that’s you, you’ll know exactly how debilitating overthinking can be and how easy it is to get stuck in a joy-sapping spiral that seems impossible to control.

But there are strategies you can use to stop it. After more than 40 years of clinical experience in treating depression, worry, social anxiety and stress, my method comes from a fundamental belief that overthinking is never anything but pointless.

At best it’s a waste of time and energy, and at worst a step towards full-blown anxiety and depression. If that sounds blunt, well, sometimes it’s best to confront worry bluntly.

So here’s my guide to help you conquer your overthinking habit.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU OVERTHINK?

Overthinking isn’t always bad. Say you’ve just fallen in love and you find yourself thinking about that person all day and even dreaming about them. Is that problematic? No. Most people love that experience.

Overthinking becomes a problem when the focus of your thoughts is exclusively on negative or ‘worrisome’ events, either in the past or in an imagined future (see quiz below). Often these thoughts provoke feelings of regret, self-blame or fear and can prevent you from functioning normally in everyday life.

Gwendoline said overthinking can cause sleep disturbance, fatigue, headaches and bowel problems (file image)

Worry triggers the release of stress hormones, which in turn cause physical symptoms such as a skyrocketing heart rate or blood pressure.

There are thousands of studies on the detrimental health impacts of overthinking. Ailments caused by it include stomach ulcers, bowel problems, muscle tension, headaches, sleep disturbance and fatigue.

Of course, you can’t tell a worrier to ‘just stop worrying’. I’d be out of a job if you could! One of the reasons for that is that the brain is wired to respond to anxiety as a survival tactic. Under threat, a little structure deep in the centre of the brain, called the amygdala, screams out in fear.

That message is so powerful, it bombards its way through the cerebral cortex — the rational part of the brain — like a wrecking ball through a pair of fishnet stockings. The trouble is, in the habitual overthinker, certain beliefs — I’ll never find love, my boss hates me, if I don’t get to sleep I’ll screw up tomorrow — are mistaken for real-life threats, when of course they’re not.

Just one worrisome thought can trigger a physiological reaction, flooding your system with the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol, and the spiral begins.

To stop the cycle of worry, you have to change the way you think about the world and how you relate to it.

Gwendoline advises asking yourself whether you’re seeing the world in a factual, rational way, or through your filters, when you start worrying about something (file image)

WHY IT CAN BE A SUPERSTITION

Many people come to me knowing that overthinking is causing them health problems, but not really wanting to stop because they believe it keeps them safe. They think that if they stop worrying, something bad will definitely happen to them.

I’m sorry to put it this way, but believing your overthinking habit keeps you safe is just superstition. It’s no different to throwing salt over your shoulder or not walking under ladders. How can worry stop bad things happening?

Worry is an internal thought process, and the last time I looked, thought couldn’t move or change matter. You can’t control other people’s actions or thoughts with your mind.

You will gain nothing by worrying — apart from ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome.

HOW TO STOP: FIRST, WORK OUT YOUR FILTER

The overthinker sees the world through a set of filters that distort reality and wreak havoc on their ability to interpret it correctly. These filters often date from childhood, when we learn about how the world and the people in it work.

It’s crucial that you understand and acknowledge these filters. Every time you feel yourself worrying about something, ask yourself whether you’re seeing the world in a factual, rational way, or through your filters. Here are a few of the common ones.

Gwendoline said overthinkers are constantly predicting negative outcomes (file image)

THE FORTUNE-TELLING FILTER: One of the pastimes of the overthinker is constantly predicting negative outcomes. Their mantra is, ‘What if?’, followed by, ‘Then it will, and then you will, and then I will…’

It’s all based in fortune-telling. But here’s the thing: you don’t have a crystal ball. Wouldn’t you have predicted the lotto numbers by now if you had?

Yes, bad things do sometimes happen, but not nearly as often as the negative fortune-teller imagines they do.

‘I CAN’T STAND IT’ FILTER: This is when you tell yourself you literally cannot stand another minute, another word, another day — and then start to believe it’s true.

Once this thought process begins, your resilience crumbles and you either break down in tears or rise up with anger, neither of which are remotely necessary or factually engineered.

EMOTIONAL REASONING FILTER: This is extremely powerful in a subtle and insidious kind of way. Emotional reasoning is convincing yourself that because you feel something, it must be a fact.

But our feelings are not facts! It might feel as though a friend was off with you when you bumped into her, for example, but you have no idea what she’s thinking unless you ask her. She might have been tired or busy or in a mood that has absolutely nothing to do with you.

ALL-OR-NOTHING FILTER: Everyone knows a black-and-white thinker. It’s hard to talk to them because they’re always right and often believe it’s ‘my way or the highway’. Their conversation is peppered with words like: always/never, nobody/everybody, everything/nothing. It’s a rigid way of thinking, with no room for the ‘grey’ which makes up all aspects of life.

Gwendoline recommends using the word concern instead of thinking because concern has specific destinations in mind: time-frames, solutions, action plans (file image)

GET OFF THE WORRY ROUNDABOUT

The circular pattern of worry achieves nothing. Concern, on the other hand, has specific destinations in mind: time-frames, solutions, action plans.

Concern means planning to minimise the impact of, or avoid, a feared situation such as job loss — thinking who in your network can help, and what you need to do to get another job.

Use the word concern, not worry. Thinking, ‘I am concerned about something’ immediately infers subsequent action.

Or try setting aside a worry time every evening, say at 6 pm, for 30 minutes. Then sit down and overthink to your heart’s content — and write your worries in a notebook.

This means that for most of the day, if you start to worry, you can tell your brain ‘not now’ and put it aside for later.

Soon, looking back at your notes, you’ll see that the things you were worrying about two days ago you can hardly even remember.

Now try to concentrate instead on ‘helpful thinking’. Even if your friend really has gone off you, ask yourself about the value of ruminating on such thoughts.

Is your thinking about it helping you? Once you frame it like that, it’s much easier to dismiss it.

Sometimes women care too much about these things. It’s liberating to realise that worry changes nothing.

QUIZ: ARE YOU A BUNDLE OF NERVES? 

1 Your boss announces a re-structuring meeting. What’s your first reaction?

A. Oh no! She hates me. This is her chance to get rid of me!

B. Wow. I wonder what this means for me? Let’s go and find out.

C. Without a job there will be no holiday and no treats for the kids and we might even have to downsize, and it’ll all be my fault …

2 Your husband says he likes your new hairstyle. Do you…

A. Think: ‘He’s only saying that because he hated the last one and this one covers the wrinkles on my forehead.’

B. Say: ‘Thanks. It’s cool isn’t it?’

C. Think: ‘OMG, he’s being nice because he’s feeling guilty about something, probably an affair!’

3 Your friends’ group chat on WhatsApp has been quiet for two weeks. How do you interpret its silence?

A. They’ve set up another one and are having fun on it without me.

B. Everyone’s probably busy. I’ll post something today and see who’s free for a walk.

C. This is so typical. I’ve always been bad at making friends and now I’ve lost these ones and I’ll probably never make any again.

You’re invited to an online school reunion. Do you…

A. Say yes, but spend sleepless nights worrying that everyone will be more successful than you and think you’ve put on weight.

B. Look forward to it. Some might have better jobs than you but you like your life, so who cares?

C. Delete the invite. You’d only say something stupid and have a panic attack, just like you always do.

Your partner hasn’t replied to a text in an hour. Are you...

A. Worried he’s ignoring you because of something you said, though you’re not sure what.

B. Completely unconcerned. He’s probably in a meeting.

C. Frantically sending him text after text. He’s obviously been fired/got stuck in a lift/been knocked off his bike/left you for another woman!

You’re helping to plan your daughter’s wedding for the summer. Are you...

A. Already convinced that the mother of the groom will be slimmer and younger-looking than you.

B. Often thinking about it, but with excitement and pleasure — and booking a marquee just in case it rains.

C. Locked in a spiral of worry over your daughter’s fiance. What if he’s not the right man for her? It will ruin her life!

Mostly As

You’re a classic worrier. Your default is to play down the positive, which means you can never take a compliment at face value.

You engage in what psychologists call ‘mind-reading’, where you arbitrarily conclude people are thinking negatively about you without any evidence that they are. Remember: most of the time other people are thinking about themselves.

No one can know what another person is thinking. Acting on assumptions is not only unhelpful but potentially harmful.

Mostly Bs

Well done! You’ve got your overthinking tendencies firmly under control. You know beliefs and feelings are not facts and that even if the facts are bad (rain is forecast on your daughter’s wedding day) there is always an action you can take to make them better (you’ll book a marquee).

You know not everyone you meet will like you, but you’re comfortable enough in your own skin not to mind.

Mostly Cs

You’re not only an overthinker but a catastrophiser. You start every sentence with OMG! You exaggerate and don’t stop exaggerating until you are exhausted from being overwhelmed.

You also tend to engage in ‘over-generalisation’, a thought filter where a single defeat is seen as setting a pattern for a lifetime of misery. Try to recognise these thoughts as nothing more than flights of the imagination. Future outcomes are never set in stone.

Adapted by Alison Roberts from The Book Of Overthinking by Gwendoline Smith (Atlantic Books, £8.99). © Gwendoline Smith 2021. To order a copy for £7.64 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15. Offer price valid until February 8, 2021.

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