Public Domain
"Nini Lopez" by Pierre Auguste Renoir (1876)
Source: Public Domain

You need not be sick or in pain for worry to arise (and fear is often not far behind). That said, chronic illness has introduced some worries into my life that were absent before I got sick. In this piece, I’ll use one of these as an example, but the techniques I’ll suggest can be helpful with any type of worry or other stressful emotion.

One of my reoccurring worries is what would happen should I be hospitalized for some reason. I worry that the medical staff won’t believe that I’m chronically ill since I don’t look sick. I worry that they won’t understand my specific needs. Two examples: 1) My doctor prescribes two medications that vastly improve the quality of my sleep, but these are off-label uses of these drugs. Will they allow me to have them in the hospital? 2) I absolutely need to nap at mid-day in order to be functional at all in the afternoon and evening. Will they allow me to do that?

No matter what you find yourself worrying about, here are three techniques to keep that worry from overwhelming you.

1. Treat worry as an old friend who’s temporarily shown up for a visit.

Instead of reacting in aversion to worry and trying to suppress it, treat it as a familiar friend who’s made yet another uninvited visit. I’ve discovered that if I say, “Ah, it’s my old friend worry-about-being-hospitalized,” it takes the power out of that worry. Sometimes saying this to myself even brings a smile to my face—the smile of recognition that these “hospital-worry thoughts” are nothing more than a worn tape that plays over in my mind and need not be taken seriously.

When you’re able to become aware that a familiar tape is playing yet again, you can choose to turn it off by saying to yourself: “This is just my mind spinning its worry stories again. I need not believe them.”

After all, I have no idea if I’ll ever be hospitalized!

Some of you may be familiar with what’s called the 90-Second Rule. Neuroscientist, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, writes about it in her book, My Stroke of Insight. According to Dr. Taylor, every emotion has a chemically-induced life cycle of 90 seconds. If left alone, the emotion will arise, peak, and be flushed out of your mind and body within that time period. However, if you feed the emotion by generating stressful stories about it, you’re physiologically re-stimulating it, and it will stay around much longer than 90 seconds.

And so, when worry arises, if you can observe it without aversion (like observing with friendliness an uninvited guest who’s drinking a cup of tea at your house), the worry will dissipate within 90 seconds. But if you fuel it with your stories, such as “No one in a hospital setting will believe that I’m sick and in pain,” you’re, in effect, forcing the emotion to outlast its natural 90-second life cycle.

It takes practice to remember to stop and step back from your thoughts before these worry tapes start playing their stories. It takes practice to become a dispassionate observer of worry. It’s well-worth the effort though.

2. Don’t identify with worry as a permanent feature of who you are.

I do this by taking self-referential terms out of my worrying. When worry arises, instead of thinking “I’m so worried about what will happen if I’m hospitalized,” I purposefully omit “I’m” and change the thought to “Worry is present” or “Worry is happening.” (As discussed in my book How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness, I do this with other stressful emotions, too, such as anxiety and frustration.)

This rewording of my thoughts keeps me from identifying with the worry as a permanent feature of my personality. And so, instead of thinking of myself as “Toni Bernhard, worrier,” I recognize that worry has arisen because of causes and conditions that have temporarily come together in my life (for example, maybe I just read about someone who was hospitalized). Nothing is permanent, and so those causes and conditions will change. If I don’t identify with the worry as “me” or “mine,” it passes out of my mind more quickly.

3. Consciously bring your attention to the present moment.

Another technique for managing worry is to consciously bring your attention out of your worry-filled stories and into your present moment experience. This third technique works well with the 90-Second Rule, because the technique keeps you from re-stimulating a stressful emotion. I’ve found that the best way to bring myself into the present moment is to switch my attention from whatever I’m thinking about and focus instead on the physical sensation of a few breaths coming in and going out of my body. (You could stop right now and try it!)

This simple practice grounds you in your body because your body is always in the present moment.

I’ve started thinking of this practice as taking refuge in the present moment. Even if it’s not a pleasant moment—perhaps I’m in physical pain—when I pause to consciously breathe in and breathe out, at least I’m present for what’s happening instead of making things worse by being lost in worrisome thoughts.

In my experience, pausing to bring myself out of my stories and into the present moment brings with it a calmness that’s often tinged with sweetness—the sweetness of resting peacefully in the wonder and mystery of being alive at this moment, even with its difficulties.

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I hope you’ll try whichever of these three techniques suits you best the next time that worry takes up temporary residence in your mind. And remember, these techniques are equally effective in alleviating the pain of other stressful emotions.

© 2016 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I’m the author of three books:

How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (2015)

How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (2013)

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers (2010) 

All of my books are available in audio format from Amazon, audible.com, and iTunes.

Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information.

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You might also like “Stick to the Facts to Keep Stress and Anxiety at Bay” and  “How Distorted Thinking Increases Stress and Anxiety.”