Name that (Worry) Tune: How to Catch Worry Early, Before it Catches You

None of us like it when we get a song stuck in our heads. Even the catchiest tunes, if heard too many times, can make us feel like we need to run away screaming or start rending something limb from limb—even though we have no idea what that means, and if we did, we’d never say that. Suffice to say, we have strong reactions to being cornered. So, when the song playing in our heads has lyrics like: you are awful at this, you are doing a terrible job, or, what if you mess up? What if you make a total fool of yourself! much as we try to find the off button, we keep hearing it (and taking it to heart) on auto-repeat. What to do?

Pick up that Needle

The key to ending the torturous repetition of anxious thoughts comes from that classic television game show where you win by being able to recognize a tune from just the first few notes. Instead of dropping everything when you hear—You screwed up! or How do you know it’s going to work out? and launching yourself on a worry mission to identify and address every single negative outcome you can imagine, save yourself the trip. And the anguish. Everyone’s worry sounds the same. Right? Mine, yours, your Uncle Joey’s, the equivalent of Uncle Joey half-way across the globe. What does that tell us?

If we can name that tune of Depression’s Greatest Hits and Worry Classics, instead of thinking that these doubts and fears means something specific about you, you can realize that they means something universal about change or uncertainty. It’s a knee-jerk neurological reaction to not knowing. Nothing more, nothing less. When you hear the tell-tale, what if? or, oh no! give your anxiety a nod and acknowledge its presence but then get back on track with what you were doing before you were so (rudely) interrupted. Your best information comes from your thoughtful mind, not the jumpy part that’s ready to give up or freak out at the blink of an eye.

Here are a few different strategies for pinpointing the sound of worry so you can dismiss it more quickly.

Know Who's Talking to YouInvoke your Caller ID

What did we do before Caller ID? How many kind telemarketers did we need to hang up on once we discovered that’s who was on the line? With worry just as with telemarketers, we can’t help who calls us, but we can decide how long to stay on the line. When you hear worry calling, don’t pull out the paper and pencil to take careful notes on what it’s selling, instead, realize it’s not personal. Worry, like a telemarketer, is sending a generic message that is being broadcast to millions of others at that very moment. Not for any good reason, just because that’s what it does. Know that worry is not how you solve problems and say, thanks, but I’m not interested.

Change the Sound of Your Worry

Can you imagine how differently you’d feel if worry spoke to you in the voice of Adam Sandler (Adam Sandler when he’s not doing a serious role, that is) or SpongeBob, or a Valley Girl? Worry notoriously speaks with great authority like the President or The Almighty. And our autonomic nervous system responds in line with its serious proclamations. Once you realize that worry is not the voice to trust, but more of a mental knee-jerk reaction, you can feel free to be irreverent and change the sound of the voice.

Worry is a Barking Dog

Like your good watchdog Spike who doesn’t distinguish between the mailman, your mother-in-law, or a robber, worry barks at everything. It just takes one teeny-tiny hint of not knowing something or a slightly less than enthusiastic look from our neighbor to launch us into a search and destroy mission of our confidence. Next time you hear worry, imagine that it is that barking dog and instead of getting alarmed, re-train it. You know it doesn’t need to bark. Tell it to sit, stay. You’ll be able to think much better about what’s going on in your life without a barking dog in your head.

Not all thoughts are created equal. If your worry sounds too bad to be true, it probably is. You can do something about the music in here. Go ahead, name that tune. You get to choose the soundtrack to your life.

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tamar chansky phd

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