Most of us know what it’s like to lie awake in the early hours, fretting about a myriad of things, unable to control our anxieties and incapable of finding a way back into the sanctuary of sleep. When this happens, we feel out of control. There seems no end in sight to our woes and they out-weigh everything else on our mind. Oftentimes, the things that trouble us then are quite petty – in the big scheme of things – but somehow they get magnified when we’re alone with our thoughts and un-distracted by everyday events. But then, as if by magic, daytime comes and brings with it new perspectives. What seemed so important as we lay awake a few hours ago has now turned into just another of life’s mundane problems, to be dealt with during the course of an ordinary day, along with everything else.
But not all troubles disappear with the dawn. Some of us experience high levels of anxiety during the day – although the good news is, it’s easier to work towards a resolution when we’re up and about. For a start, we can take a logical look at the causes and start to address them. The first thing we can do is distinguish between real and hypothetical threats, i.e., those that involve a problem about which we can take action and those that are based on potential scenarios that are out of our control. Easier said than done, perhaps, especially when we’re feeling overwhelmed. But there are ways to tackle this and one of them is the ‘worry tree’ diagram, often employed by therapists when dealing with clients who have chronic worries.
The first step is to identify the worry and sort into either the hypothetical or real category. If the worry is hypothetical, then the tree leads us to release it intentionally and consciously. If it is real, we proceed to take action to resolve it, either now or at some specified time in the future. Used in this way, a worry tree is not just a practical tool, but an empowering mindfulness process. (You can download a worry tree model here.)
This being the human mind, there are complications, as you would expect. For example, while hypothetical worries may imaginary and not rooted in any kind of imminent peril, when anxiety takes a hold our minds can’t always tell what’s real and what isn’t. Ways to cope with this include identifying, labelling and writing down the worries. The science behind this relies on the fact that writing uses the frontal lobe, which is a more logical part of the brain, thus shifting blood flow and energy from being concentrated in the emotional limbic system. The result is that we can view our worries from a different perspective and create some psychological distance and finally release them.
‘Real’ worries may be easier to identify but that doesn’t make them go away. Some can be dealt with once and for all by positive action, while the root cause of others may keep them recurring money troubles, for instance. Nevertheless, we can keep them under control by acknowledging them, facing up to them and taking positive steps to keep them in perspective. It’s best not to try to put them out of mind; they have a habit of coming back to haunt us in the early hours.
Rachel Ward Lilley is a business and educational psychologist. She has worked for many years advising SMEs and her current work relates to issues of resilience, communication, personal development, team building and motivation. Over the past 12 years Rachel has extended her work into the educational field. Find out more here.
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