Friday, February 10, 2017


Why worry? If it’s going to happen, then worry won't change that fact. And if it’s not going to happen, then there’s absolutely no point in worrying at all. Still, lots of people worry. Indeed, we all worry at some stage or another in our lives. Yes, we worry and we also infect others with our worries.

The English word ‘worry’ comes from the Old English word wyrgan and Old High German word wurgen, both meaning to strangle, to choke’. When we worry, we strangle ourselves, so to speak. Actually, not so to speak, but well-nigh literally. Worry is very bad for the body, the mind and the spirit. People say, 'I'm sick with worry,' or 'I'm worried to death.' Do they really know the truth of what they're saying? People can literally worry themselves sick--and in some cases even to death. 

Worry is a state of mental uneasiness ('dis-ease'), disquiet and anxious apprehension, and it has been described as the 'number one plague of modern time'. 'A certain well controlled carefreeness may be an asset,' wrote the American minister and author Dr Norman Vincent Peale (pictured right). 'Normal sensible concern is an important attribute of the mature person. But worry frustrates one’s best functioning.' What's worse, worry chokes out the joy of living, even the very spirit of life itself.

A recent randomised study of 77 participants examined the impact of the following types of mindfulness on the frequency of intrusive negative thoughts and measured subjective anxiety levels: (i) guided acceptance-based mindfulness meditation; (ii) attention-based breath meditation; and (iii) progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). 

The most effective technique for reducing the frequency of negative thoughts was a guided acceptance-based mindfulness meditation. The essence of this form of mindfulness – it is at the heart of all mindfulness practice – is acceptance. Thoughts come and feelings arise. Let them come. Let them arise. Watch. Look. Observe. But don’t judge or evaluate them. And don’t resist them or struggle against them. Let them be … and they will pass. If you give them no power, they cannot and will not trouble you.

The second form of mindfulness studied was attention-based breath meditation. Here, one focuses on one’s breath at the point where the sensation of in-breath – the first moment of in-breath – is most prominent for you in terms of sensation. It is not a matter of following your breath in and out but of staying at the point of sensation and bringing your attention back to that point when the mind wanders. According to the study, breath awareness was slightly less effective in reducing negative thoughts but it was still quite useful.

The third form of mindfulness – progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) – was found to be the least effective in reducing the frequency of negative thoughts. Actually, PMR is not really a form of mindfulness meditation. It has its place – as a method of relaxation. PMR was developed by the American physician Dr Edmund Jacobson (pictured left), in the early 1920s. Jacobson developed over 200 exercises and techniques which, taken together, relax the entire body by releasing muscular tension that accumulates as a person experiences a stressful situation. You focus your attention on different muscles in the body and tense and then relax these muscles. 

Let's be careful not to disparage PMR. Other studies have shown that PMR can not only alleviate tight muscles and cramps but also reduce the intensity of pain, relieve stress and anxiety and reduce depression. However, this particular study found that PMR was not all that effective in reducing the frequency of negative thoughts.

When a negative thought or feeling arises, simply watch it. Observe it. There is no need to replace it with a positive thought. Some find that helpful. I prefer to give the negative thought no attention – and thus no power over me – and quickly move on in consciousness. Non-resistance – another word for acceptance – is the key.

Study: Ainsworth B, Bolderston H, and Garner M. ‘Testing the differential effects of acceptance and attention-based psychological interventions on intrusive thoughts and worry.’ Behav Res Ther. 2017 Jan 24;91:72-77. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2017.01.012. 





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