Anxiety, Worry & Procrastination

Anxiety, Worry & Procrastination
by Art Ticknor

                     
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Not having been a worrier, I had a limited understanding of the dynamics of people who are chronic worriers.

the worrier
Two friends in particular had described symptoms of their worry-patterns, some of which were similar and others not. The main similarity was that both avoided action, while the main difference was that worry led to severe bouts of depression with one but not the other. When I came across a recently published book in my local library, The Worry Cure by Robert L. Leahy, PhD, which described worrying in a way that encompassed the habits of both friends, it provided new insights into the underpinnings of my friends' psychologies.

Leahy describes the typical "cures" offered both by cognitive therapists and well-intentioned friends and why they don't work. His conviction, based on extensive clinical experience, is that once the worrier understands why he worries and sees that it just digs the hole deeper, he can then break out of the unproductive behavior. And he provides simple actions that the worrier can apply.

The chronic worrier believes that worrying works – and it actually does reduce anxiety during the worry-periods. But it promises to avoid uncomfortable situations, to get rid of emotion (namely, fear) immediately, and to make the worrier feel more secure. Unfortunately it fails in those promises.

Intolerance of uncertainty is a main factor leading to unproductive worry – and uncertainty training significantly reduces worry and anxiety in more than 75% of chronic worriers in a relatively short period of time according to Leahy. The training consists of two simple steps:

  1. Examining the costs and benefits of accepting uncertainty. This often comes down to facing one's worst fears.
  2. Flooding yourself with uncertainty. Repeating thousands of times, like a mantra: "I don't know for sure," and (mantra #2): "It's always possible that something terrible could happen."

By understanding the particular issues you worry about and how they are related to your style of worry and personality, you will be better able to break the bad habits you thought of as solutions. Leahy's book provides a series of five questionnaires from various psychological studies that are designed to help you arrive at the necessary insights.

Does this sound familiar: "You are always the center of your worries"? Try this exercise to take yourself out of it; disappear to see objectively:

Imagine that you don't exist. You're not here. Time and events flow on without you. Tomorrow comes and you're not here. People move around, the sun rises, cars flow through the streets. You have disappeared. One of 6 billion people has disappeared. How important were his concerns?

[There's a world of difference, all the difference in the world, between reading an exercise and actually doing it. As a worrier, you may be afraid to break the worrying long enough to actually do that little exercise above, which could easily take less than 1 minute. But facing a fear could make a world of difference for you.]

Leahy refers to a study of the effects of mindfulness training done by three psychologists as a way to focus on experience without struggling to control it or judge it. I don't know what technique they used, but I came across the following description of a vipassana meditation at bsangha.net recently that would do the trick:

Very briefly: Sit erect in a comfortable position. If in a chair, keep your back away from the chair's back, feet flat on the floor; if on the floor, using a cushion will help you keep the back erect with the least fatigue, and cross your legs in a comfortable way. Most people close their eyes, but if you tend to get sleepy, keep your eyes half open and look downward at about a 45-degree angle with soft focus on the floor. Be balanced.

Without in any way trying to control your breathing (let it be as it wants) put your attention on your breath. You do not try and control your breath, mind, or your body, except for maintaining quietude and stillness within. (You don't keep still by tensing your muscles – you maintain stillness simply by not moving – by poise!) Maintaining the primary focus of your attention on the breath is practice in concentration, which is half of vipassana.

At the same time, while your primary attention is on the breath, be aware of what else is going on within you (and around you): your thoughts, emotions, feelings, sensations – this is the other half of vipassana: mindfulness practice. 'Staying in the present moment' covers a lot of this. Notice the kinds of thoughts, feelings and sensations that come up, and if certain thoughts or feelings tend to repeat, notice that too. Important: do not analyze what comes up – just notice.

When you become aware that you've lost your primary focus on the breath, just gently return to the breath, and (this is very important) with no sense of having failed at anything (because you haven't!). Just come back to the breath. Almost all difficulty with meditation is due to our minds jumping in and complicating it – it is a very simple yet subtle activity.

A second part of the previous thought-experiment or imagination exercise is one Leahy calls "going nowhere":

Imagine that you've disappeared. You're looking down on the earth. You observe the building you live in. You pull back farther and farther. Your neighborhood is a patch of color like you see from an airplane. You've given up your fantasy of control because you're disappearing for a moment. You can't touch the reality that you yearn to control.

Once you take yourself out of it, you are viewing experience with detachment – even when that experience includes you as one of the actors.

Worrying and a search for certainty can be seen as emotional avoidance. Worry is abstract and linguistic, thinking about how to solve problems versus feeling the underlying emotions. Feeling emotion is one way of finding you can tolerate reality. Leahy tells us that most emotions are experienced via physical sensations – does this seem like a foreign concept? – such as tension in the face, rapid heart beat, tingling in the fingers or toes, sweating. To do a body-awareness check, it helps to close the eyes, lie back, and scan the body one section at a time for tension. And wherever you feel tension, try to increase it to tune into your emotions. Then think back to what you're feeling emotional about.

How do you overcome procrastination, endless spinning on looking for the perfect certainty, and the depression which follows for some people? By doing what you don't want to do. This goes against the grain, doesn't it. It overcomes the desire to dodge discomfort by making a choice, committing to "successful imperfectionism," and practicing constructive discomfort.

For example, losing weight doesn't require advanced rocket science. It's merely a function of reducing caloric intake and increasing caloric burn-off – which means you'll have to be uncomfortable. When you tell yourself: "I need to be ready," "I need to feel stronger first," etc., these are all ways we let ourselves off the hook in order to avoid discomfort.

Have you considered that perfectionism also may underlie much procrastination? "What's the use of exercising (meditating, etc.) today? I won't be in shape (enlightened, etc.) next week." The procrastinator is a discomfort dodger. But no discomfort, no progress. Leahy provides practical guidance on making productive discomfort your goal.

Another similarity I noticed in my two friends' psychologies is that the idea of challenging their worried thinking didn't compute. And that's something that Leahy devotes an entire chapter of the book to, followed by a chapter on focusing on the deeper threat that's being avoided. In order to provide perspective, he helps you consolidate the insights from the five earlier questionnaires in a summary of the core beliefs that determine each personality style (of which most individuals have a combination) and the strategies of avoidance and compensation that developed over the years to keep from facing your core fears.

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There's only one accomplishment in life that leads to complete satisfaction. That accomplishment is finding the true self, what we really are at the core of our being, behind the veil of maya or illusion. All anxiety and worry can be traced back to the fear of losing the faulty belief of what we are.


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