My mother worries a lot. Our family has fights over how we should deal with it. My dad argues with her about how irrational she is, which upsets her more. My older sister either avoids her when she can tell that my mom is starting to get worked up or patronizes her when she is talking about what could go wrong… agreeing in a way that is meant to help her stop. I can’t take it anymore. She finds something wrong with every idea I have, and keeps me from going out and living life. She has always been someone who is fearful of what can happen, but now she is driving everyone crazy with her constant worrying.
— Tired Teen
Dear Tired Teen,
Thank you for sharing the frustration you have with your mom’s excessive worry and how it affects your family. Worry is produced by anxiety. Anxiety is the emotion and worry is the thinking. It usually has to do with the future and since the future only can exist in our imagination it is a bad combination — anxiety plus imagination. The core of it is fear. Anxiety is a certain kind of fear, actually the fear of the feeling of fear.
While a reasonable amount of fear can help us to be alert and prepared if we can see a potential danger or threat, too much anxiety or fear starts to dominate our thinking and to generate more of the thinking that creates more fear.
It is often called the domino effect… one thought leads to the next, each an amplified version of the anxiety of the one before. They get strung together and lead to a sense of catastrophe; a story of a horrible outcome. A trigger of something that would be a relatively small concern can lead to thinking that is of a disastrous outcome.
When a person is in the process they do not see that their imagination is running away with them because in the future anything can happen. They are unable to recognize that because it could happen it is not likely to happen. The fear of the disaster gets in the way of seeing the likeliness of it happening. The thoughts are irrational, distorted by the strength of the emotion. Intense emotions almost always distort our perception of reality, whether anger, guilt or anxiety.
People who have high anxiety levels can learn how to see the influence their anxiety has on their thinking through psychotherapy. Rather than focusing on the idea, the future that is imagined in the mind of the anxious person, therapy helps a person focus on the feeling —how intense the feeling is. Once a person learns how to become aware of the feelings they are having and to register how strong those feelings are they can begin to regulate their feelings and bring the intensity down.
We all think different thoughts when we are calm than when we are emotionally worked up. It is not easy at first to practice shifting from believing what we think to listening to what we feel, but with practice we can learn to gain a calmer and more relaxed perspective. We need some fear to be aware of the dangers that exist around us. We need to use it to guide us into good choices. But without an ability to take risks and to trust in the goodness of life, we will be more limited in the living of life than we need to be.
Your mother needs help. You can all help her by learning to talk to her about the feelings she is having, rather than the thoughts she is thinking. It is helpful to use a number system… say a scale of one to 10.
You might say: “It looks like your anxiety is quite high right now. How high is it?” It can also help to talk about risks and identify to her risks that you are willing to take. It usually does not work to argue with her about who is right. Her feelings are facts and can be honoured, without believing what these feelings cause her to think. If she learns this from a psychotherapist, it will be easier for her family to support her at home.
I wish you all wellness,