How much worry is too much? How can we cope? This can certainly be more difficult for those who have grown up without secure attachment in childhood or have experienced trauma during their lives. In fact, those with insecure, avoidant or disorganized attachment, attachment wounds or trauma histories will have a harder time re-regulating their nervous systems.
How to Help People Who Worry Too Much
How can we help those who have trouble managing worry?
Effective therapy can help people explore a deeper understanding of emotional regulation and how to nurture it. It can start with learning how to recognize if worry or anxiety levels have become too high. We can also help people develop resources for their own emotional regulation, which they can use in everyday life.
How Much Worry is “Normal?”
Think about how you might describe “normal worry” to someone ready to explore a different perspective. This type of worry weaves in and out of a person’s daily experience. It could help a person focus on a concern that is specific and real. It doesn’t impede daily functioning.
If you are experiencing “normal” worry, you might see or hear something that slightly upsets or concerns you. You can use problem-solving skills or ask that kind of worry to step aside. You can breathe through it and move on with your day. These abilities are signs you are likely able to regulate your emotions on a consistent basis, where your thoughts and feelings are able to co-exist and even work together. It means you have the ability to think and feel at the same time. Your feelings and reactions are tolerable and flexible.
Emotional Regulation Starts in Childhood with Secure Attachment
Emotional regulation isn’t automatically part of who we are. We learn it throughout life, either directly or indirectly. The ability to self-regulate emotions comes much more easily to those who have grown up with secure attachment.
Researchers John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth observed what they called secure attachment by studying the behavior of children when separated from caregivers. Children with secure attachment show some distress when their caregiver leaves. But these children are able to compose themselves and occupy themselves knowing that their caregiver will return. Children with secure attachment feel protected by their caregivers,and they know that they can depend on them to return.
Secure attachment plays a critical role in emotional regulation because it’s the earliest time a child learns that even though they are upset, things will return to normal. They can trust that ultimately, they are safe and protected.
Secure attachment is one of a number of attachment styles that deeply affect our emotional development and the health of our relationships (see: Loving a Trauma Survivor: Understanding Childhood Trauma’s Impact on Relationships).
The Trauma Connection
For survivors of trauma, emotional regulation becomes more challenging because of hyperarousal. At a most basic level, hyperarousal is a super-sensitive stress response: If something bad has happened to you, your body is more likely to feel that something bad will happen again.
Certain triggers may cause a heightened state of anxiety for a trauma survivor. An emotional response may activate greater feelings of anxiety/worry experienced in the past (which is further explained in detail in in Babette Rothschild’s book, The Body Remembers). Learning to cope in a healthy way with these triggers is essential to achieving emotional regulation.
Lack of secure attachment has even been proven to predict severity of PTSD in soldiers. “Soldiers with an insecure attachment style (preoccupied, fearful avoidant, dismissing avoidant) had statistically significantly higher rates of PTSD than soldiers with a secure attachment style.”
What is “Too Much” Worry?
Everyone worries sometimes. But a reliable sign that a person’s worry has become “too much” is that it persists for a long time and impacts daily functioning. If someone is feeling edgy or overwhelmed and has a hard time finding relief from it or must actively do something else as a distraction, this state is characterized as “too much” worry.
If a person has stopped going to certain places or doing certain things because of worry (such as avoiding air travel or changing normal travel routes home), this may signal a level of difficulty that might benefit from treatment to help with emotional regulation. Anxiety is diffuse in nature. There may be no clear reason a person feels distressed at a particular time. Anxiety has physical symptoms, too—trouble with sleep, appetite, tense muscles, irritability and trouble concentrating to name a few.
If Hyperarousal or Anxiety Does Not Remit—What Do You Do?
Setting boundaries to help a person feel safer is an excellent, important and confident first step. Here are five tips and techniques that I recommend to patients:
1. Turn off the news. We consume news events through multiple sensory experiences. The television, in particular, bombards our eyes and ears with information. Getting news through one sense at a time is the safest way to emotionally tolerate difficult information. Personally, I prefer get most of my news by reading.
2. Employ the one-time rule. Not only does news come through too many sensory stimuli. Frequency is a significant issue. In our 24-hour news cycle, the news repeats again and again. Each time, our neural pathways are impacted. Listen once. Read it once. And if you must watch it—watch it just once.
3. Movies and TV. Even though they are fictitious, TV shows like Law & Order (and so many others) can heighten anxiety. If you want to watch an episode, keep it at just one. Marathons or binge-viewing can trigger hyperarousal and can make regulation difficult. The same goes for high-intensity movies. For example, I recently saw the new Jason Bourne movie. Its goal was to heighten my anxiety and my senses. Because of its duration and intensity, this reaction can be particularly difficult to come down from, especially if you are subjecting yourself to frequent stimuli.
4. Ground yourself to the present. Breathing from your diaphragm (like Elmo from Sesame Street demonstrates in this video) will help bring you back to the present moment so you can notice the present tense and know that you are currently safe. Some people find a grounding tool helpful—whether it’s a pair of fuzzy slippers, a rock in your pocket or something as simple as a reminder of someone with whom you feel safe.
5. Keep your evenings positive. Each night, look for positives in the world. Before you go to bed, think about something that you’re grateful for or can appreciate. Don’t use electronic devices like TVs, iPads or video games at night. Instead, create a nighttime routine that lets your body find peace and relaxation—whether it means stretching, yoga, meditation, singing or drinking a cup of herbal tea.
Even in a world full of terrorism, political chaos and natural disasters, it is possible to find a calm place that allows you to see the world’s beauty, to ground yourself in the present, to be mindful and to feel safe. It just takes time and practice.
Is Worry Consuming You or a Loved One?
There is no shame weakness in admitting you or a loved one is overcome with worry. The ability to see this struggle is a strength that allows you to recognize when a situation has escalated. This admission opens opportunities for support. Seeking assistance when you need it is an act of courage.
As a mental health professional, you can assure clients that your office is a place where you can witness and nurture that courage. You can develop tools to support a safe and stable emotional environment, both during a therapy session and in daily life.
Meditation – Tara Brach’s website
Yoga – Yoga International
Johnson’s groundbreaking and remarkably successful book/program for creating stronger, more secure relationships: Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love