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Worried sick? Welcome to the club. With growing uncertainty about our future in a fast-changing world, your worries might feel more amplified than ever. And while it’s totally normal to worry or feel anxious in the face of uncertainty, too much worry can be, well, cause for concern. “Worry becomes problematic when it prevents you from doing the things you want to do and from being the woman that you want to be,” says Angela Neal-Barnett, PhD, director of the Program for Research on Anxiety Disorders among African Americans at Kent State University, and author of Soothe Your Nerves: The Black Woman’s Guide to Understanding and Overcoming Anxiety, Panic and Fear (Simon & Schuster, 2003).
While worries about health, finances, our relationships, and the world-at-large have always been a part of our daily lives, if you’re losing sleep to worst-case scenarios and “what ifs?” or experiencing physical side effects like gastrointestinal distress and headaches, these could be the warning signs of chronic or generalized anxiety. Researchers have also long warned about the immune-suppressing effects of chronic, or long-term, stressors.
To understand just what it takes to overcome debilitating worry and build resiliency in the face of uncertainty, we took a peek inside a cognitive behavioral therapist’s playbook—and even scored some bonus tips for going from worrier to warrior.
What Is Worry?
California-based cognitive behavioral therapist and author of Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind: How to Stop the Cycle of Anxiety, Fear & Worry (New Harbinger Publications, 2017) and The Anxiety Virus: 3 Essential Strategies to Build Immunity to Uncertainty In the COVID Crisis (self-published, 2020), Jennifer Shannon, likens worry to a smoke detector alerting us to a threat. And that feeling of anxiety that often goes hand-in-hand? Think of it as a call to action to minimize or eliminate that perceived threat. “Worry is an attempt to do something, to problem-solve in our heads, so worry can be quite adaptive,” she says.
What Is Chronic Worry?
Chronic worry, on the other hand, is like a smoke detector that goes off at the smell of burnt toast. “It’s too sensitive, so you’re getting this low level of stress hormones in your body all the time.”
So what causes chronic stress to develop in the first place? “When we run into problems with worry and anxiety, the biggest cause is because we have an intolerance for uncertainty,” Shannon explains. “So it’s this belief that we need to feel certain in order to feel safe, and unless we can control everything, we can’t rest and relax.” This results in overthinking, or “This idea that ‘if I think about this enough, it will somehow eliminate the uncertainty. It's an unproductive worry. Where it becomes problematic is when you’re avoiding things, so you’re not living fully.”
Chances are, you’ve experienced some degree of worry in the last year as life as we knew it ground to a halt at the hands of COVID-19, but if someone in your immediate family lives with anxiety, you could be four times more likely to experience it yourself.
Other factors that can contribute to chronic worry can be past traumas and stressful life circumstances (uhh… global pandemic, anyone?). For instance, says Shannon, after her home burned down in the 2017 California wildfires, she found herself exhibiting anxious behaviors around fire safety, like constantly worrying whether the stove was turned off.
And our current worry triggers don’t end there. In 2020 America, with racial tensions bubbling over, “It’s difficult to find a black woman who is not worried,” says Neal-Barnett. “Racism, in all its forms, is a chronic stressor.” With the constant exposure to emotionally charged images and content through the news and social media, black women are experiencing worry at increasingly higher rates—along with the greatest barriers to mental health. Pressure to conform to the “strong black woman” stereotype, cultural stigma around mental health, and socioeconomic barriers to culturally informed therapy mean that black women experience more chronic anxiety and more intense symptoms than their Caucasian counterparts, research shows.
What to Do
“The most effective way is to relax into the discomfort and uncertainty of life,” says Shannon. It’s common to misuse relaxation as a way to get rid of anxiety, when in fact, the key is to recognize that negative emotions will come up, but you can soften into them, and let the emotions metabolize, which can help us ease into acceptance. “It’s a subtle but incredibly powerful difference.”
For those struggling with chronic worry, working with a cognitive behavioral therapist and using a targeted strategy for your particular type of worry can increase your tolerance for uncertainty and help you develop effective coping techniques. “We really need to be able to tolerate not knowing,” says Shannon.
If you’re a black woman living with chronic worry, you might further benefit from a more culturally sensitive approach, like working with a therapist who can relate to the lived black experience (ideally another black woman), or a culturally competent therapist who understands issues like worry as they relate to black women, says Neal-Barnett. This might mean having to challenge your own culturally passed-down narratives around mental health, since “Going to therapy has been seen as an act of somebody who is weak,” says Neal-Barnett. “And to be weak as a black woman is an oxymoron.”
According to Shannon, many of our coping behaviors are an unskilful attempt to get rid of emotion with distraction—like worrying to avoid the negative cocktail of emotions that come with uncertainty. That’s because “Worry, as a mental activity, requires less energy than full-blown anxiety or full-blown fear,” explains Neal-Barnett.
In her practice, Shannon focuses primarily on exposure therapy to help desensitize clients to the negative emotion of anxiety and the physiological response that goes along with unchecked worry. This might mean allowing the intrusive thought to be present and sitting with the discomfort until eventually it becomes neutralized. And while using distractions is perfectly normal, you want to use them sparingly, says Shannon. Instead, we can increase our tolerance for negative emotions through increased exposure, which helps us become much less reactive when they come up.
5 Habits to Curb Your Worries
These bonus tips from our experts are things you should already be doing to help regulate your daily mood so you can bounce back from whatever life throws your way. If you haven’t already, add these to your resiliency checklist and kick chronic worry to the curb.
Schedule your sleep. Establishing a regular sleep schedule is a no-brainer when it comes to regulating your daily mood so you can respond to worry instead of reacting, says author and cognitive behavioral therapist Jennifer Shannon. If your life is lacking structure thanks to the global pandemic, try sticking to a regular bedtime and set an alarm for the same time each morning.
Start your morning right. “If you start your morning worrying or stressed, then you go through your day that way,” says Angela Neal-Barnett, director of the Program for Research on Anxiety Disorders among African Americans at Kent State University. She recommends taking 5-10 minutes to ground yourself, either through meditation or prayer, or listening to a motivational podcast or inspirational music to start your day on a good note.
Exercise and eat right. This one might be obvious, but getting some daily exercise, spending time in nature, and feeding your body a balanced diet can go a long way towards maintaining a good headspace.
Limit TV and social media. While staying on top of the news and social media can help us feel connected and informed, it can also trigger our primitive monkey mind “because our monkey mind is always looking for threats,” says Shannon. “And we really don’t need additional activation right now.” Try going on a news and social media diet by limiting your screen time to certain times of the day and turning off notifications.
Cultivate connection. The global shutdown has created a pandemic of social isolation—and “Being isolated is not good for worry,” says Neal-Barnett. “In fact, it increases it.” For black women, connecting with other black women especially can help validate much of what they’re feeling. “Historically, at times such as these, black women have gathered and supported one another,” says Neal-Barnett. That connection—and knowing that you’re not alone—is the key to healing from worry.