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Published November 17, 2013, 04:50 PM

With practice, chronic worriers can stress less

FARGO - When a person with chronic worry goes on vacation, they might think their house will burn down while they’re away. Or, if they have a stomachache, it must be cancer.

By: Anna G. Larson, INFORUM

FARGO - When a person with chronic worry goes on vacation, they might think their house will burn down while they’re away. Or, if they have a stomachache, it must be cancer.

While all people spend a portion of their time worrying, those who worry excessively find it difficult to escape their thoughts and overestimate the likelihood of something bad happening.

Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by chronic and excessive worry about health, money, family or work, according to the Academy of Cognitive Therapy.

Generalized anxiety accounts for approximately 3 to 4 percent of the

18 percent of American adults who have an anxiety disorder, and it’s more prevalent in women than men (2.5 women have it for every one man).

Excessive worrying can have negative effects on sleep, appetite, and physical and mental well-being – people can worry themselves sick.

“A lot of people will say, ‘I don’t know the last time I actually felt relaxed,’ ” says Samantha Beauchman, a psychologist with Sanford Health in Fargo. “You see people who think they have attention difficulties and a lot of times, they’re more of an anxious person who’s distracted by their worry thoughts all the time.”

WHY WE WORRY

Biology, upbringing and life situations can cause some people to be more vulnerable to excessive worry.

“You learn a lot of those things from growing up and watching your care givers or parents,” Beauchman says. “You know if Mom has a certain face, like she looks anxious, the baby will be anxious.”

If a child sees their parent(s) talking through worries as a coping skill, they learn it, too, she says.

Some people who worry excessively didn’t grow up with parents who worried more than normal. Instead, they went through a stressful time and even though the period is over, they continue to worry.

Caffeine consumption, poor sleep and eating habits and lack of a support system can also contribute to worry thoughts, Beauchman says.

“If you don’t have a decent social support system, then you often think thoughts over in your head, and you’re never really getting it out,” she says.

WHAT WE WORRY ABOUT

It’s difficult to pinpoint what people worry about most, but Nadine Hillesheim, a counselor at The Village Family Service Center in Fargo, says worries are usually related to seeking approval.

“Most anxieties come down to fear of not being liked or approved of. Those kinds of worries really get self-critical. People are anticipating looking bad,” she says.

Other worries are typically associated with finances, relationships, career, health and family.

Women, on average, worry more than men because low female risk-taking was favored by natural selection, according to research published in Psychology Today. Women taking fewer risks were more likely to survive and raise children to maturity. The downside of low risk-taking is a tendency to worry too much.

Women are also commonly the guardians of relationships, so they may worry more about their marriage, kids, friends, etc., Hillesheim says.

WHEN IT’S A PROBLEM; HOW TO COPE

Health issues like stomach problems, headaches, lack of concentration and energy, sleeplessness and a feeling of being on edge can be attributed to excessive worry. If it goes on long enough, people become used to the constant feeling of watchfulness and anxiety, Hillesheim says.

“The longer it goes on, the harder it is to stop it,” she says.

On average, individuals with generalized anxiety disorder have experienced excessive worry for at least 25 years, according to the Academy of Cognitive Therapy, although people of all ages can suffer from chronic worry.

It can take weeks, months or even years to change, but people can learn to curb their worry thoughts.

“Most of the time, it’s such an ingrained habit that it takes a while to undo it,” Hillesheim says. “I think we forget that we can choose where we put our attention.”

Besides therapy or counseling and a healthy diet and regular sleep schedule, people can help themselves worry less with simple exercises.

Breathe. Hillesheim guides her clients through a two-minute breathing exercise where they breathe deeply and slowly for two minutes. Each breath cycle should take 15 seconds so there are four breath cycles per minute.

Find a time to worry. “Allow yourself a set time throughout the day to worry. Then find a task to distract yourself and switch gears,” Sanford‘s Beauchman says. “It’s hard work. If you put the work in, you’ll start to see some results. Maybe you can control your thoughts for 10 seconds or maybe a whole minute.”

Be mindful. “Mindfulness practices train our bodies to remember what it feels like to be at that calmer spot,” Hillesheim says. Mindfulness encourages people to stay “in the moment” rather than thinking about things that haven’t even happened, she explains.

Remember worries are not facts. “Our thoughts are not factual. A worry is a thought, it’s just a thought – it’s not reality,” Hillesheim says.

She encourages people to say, “I am having a worried thought” rather than “I am worried.”

Consider medicine. In conjunction with therapy or counseling, antidepressants prescribed by a doctor can be effective for people with excessive worry, Hillesheim says.

Exposure. “Force yourself to go through the worry and see that the world doesn’t end,” Hillesheim says. “When we’re afraid of something, we say ‘OK I don’t want that to happen,’ so we chew it over so we don’t have to face it. All the worry in the world isn’t going to make things not occur.”

Exercise. Yoga and other forms of exercise can train the body to slow down, and usually, the mind comes along with it, Hillesheim says.

Heart-pounding exercise, like running, can also discharge extra adrenaline. Even stretching can help a worried mind.

Some worry is OK. Thinking things over is a natural part of our brain and a useful process, Beauchman says.

When worry starts to consume the majority of a person’s time, then it’s time to seek help.

“I understand, it’s a hard thing to do. You’ve got to practice – it’s like muscle memory when playing a sport,” Beauchman says. “The more you practice diverting your thoughts from worrying, the better you’re going to get at it.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525

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