Posted on Apr 12th, 2006

Don’t worry.

How many times have we heard that ludicrous and totally unhelpful statement? Clearly if we were able to not worry, then that’s exactly what we’d be doing – isn’t it? After all, worry is no fun, no fun at all, and we’d all much rather be having fun than worrying – wouldn’t we?

I would like to introduce to you something that psychologists call a schema. Another word for a schema is a strategy – something that achieves something we want to achieve. Or more accurately something we believe achieves what we want to achieve and frequently mislead ourselves into continuing to believe despite evidence to the contrary – like not achieving what the strategy is supposed to achieve.

Let’s go way back to childhood, where the first schemas develop. Schemas develop by virtue of intelligence and noticing what works. Babies cry. How long does it take a baby to develop a crying schema. I’m hungry, I cry, someone puts food in my mouth. Only at the developmental level of a baby it’s more like uncomfortable feeling that isn’t understood, cry when uncomfortable. And babies aren’t aware of separate people being separate individuals. The whole world is just an extension of the baby. It’s the parents that quickly train the child into those connections with the thing the parent does and that is to make the baby comfortable by noticing whether or not the problem is hunger, pain, soiling, or just wanting to be held. And so the battle starts of the baby learning strategies to get what it wants when it wants and the parent who attempts to socialise the child into eating at regular times, going to the toilet at regular times, sleeping at regular times and getting cuddles at regular times. Sometimes the child wins, sometimes the parent.

So we learn very quickly the schema that crying makes us more comfortable. When was the last time you cried when you wanted something to eat? So it seems reasonable to assume that sometime between babyhood and now you either learned a new eating strategy or modified the old one. And you probably did this because Parent decided that it wasn’t in your best interests to grow up believing that the world would satisfy every one of your needs instantly. And they did this in your best interests because to allow you to grow up with that belief would turn you into a spoiled, selfish, self-centred child with no empathy for others.

We developed other strategies by watching what other people did and emulating it.

There’s something else quite different about young children and adults. Young children are very healthily present-moment oriented – this is why instant gratification makes sense to a child. They aren’t unduly concerned about tomorrow or next week, because what’s going on now is okay and the world is full of interesting things to explore and learn about and develop strategies to deal with. A child’s mind has enough going on right now to keep it fully occupied and entertained.

Until we adults decide to screw that up for them.

Santa will bring you that for Christmas if you’re good!

What a wonderful way to teach a child to worry.

In that simple sentence we teach the child that the future is important. We teach the child that they need to be concerned about whether or not some unknown, hairy old man (a bit like a God is to adults) will approve of them enough to bring them their heart’s desire. We teach them that they have to please someone that they don’t know and will never meet (except perhaps at a Grotto, but then we introduce the confusion of different Santas at different grottos) and have no way of knowing what pleases this person and what doesn’t except that displeasing Mum and/or Dad usually brings the suggestion that Santa won’t be pleased either.

Birthdays are another way we teach children to focus on the future rather than the present. When you go to school. When you go to big school. When you go to college. When you go to University. When you get a job. When you grow up. When you earn lots of money you’ll be able to… When you have babies. When we go on holiday. And maybe even – when you die?

We expose our youngsters to a barrage of future oriented thoughts and suggestions that slowly but surely switch the focus from Now to Then. But we never ever tell them that Now is the only time they will ever experience and that Then is always imagined.

And this is how we learn to worry. We become so focused on what might or might not happen; we become so focused on whether we please or displease others; we become so focused on outcomes… that we forget to experience who and what we are. We forget to experience and enjoy right now.

Now I have to admit that some people excel at worrying. And some people don’t. But most of us seem to have the capacity to do it. It’s just that we don’t all worry about the same things. Some people worry about getting in an aeroplane and others worry about money and whether or not they can pay the bills. Some people worry about going to the dentist and others worry about whether or not to get new curtains.

What you worry about doesn’t matter and while it seems that if you had to choose a worry then where to go on holiday probably would win hands down over waiting for a cancer diagnosis – but if you are worried then you are worried and for you, in your world, with your life circumstances it’s a serious problem because it’s hanging around in your mind and stopping you from enjoying your life and being free and expressive in the way that young child was that we were thinking about earlier.

Having experienced lifelong training in the art of worrying, and having perfected worrying schemas that suggest a worrying strategy is somehow dealing with a problem in a way that is much better than not dealing with it at all, it is insane to suggest to someone that they should stop worrying. Worry is like a virus. Once you’ve got it you get attacks of it all your life. It drops into dormancy for long, or not so long, periods of time, always ready to re-emerge at the slightest sign of Life not moving in just the perfect way you would like it to.

The easiest solution to worrying is just not to do it.

But to someone who has a deeply rooted worrying schema, this seems like an impossibility because the schema itself suggests that terrible will things will happen if you don’t worry. And you know this because if you ever find a moment when the worry isn’t present you soon start to worry about not worrying, because serious things are going on around you and you SHOULD be worrying (while at the same time feeling envious of those who seem immune from worry).

If you’d like to break the habit, then you have to take the risk of not worrying for just five minutes and see what happens. If nothing bad happens and the problem is still there, and you are still there, then you may well survive not worrying for five minutes some other time. And so you teach yourself a new strategy. You see, if you decide not to worry for just five minutes, the schema doesn’t feel too threatened because It’s all about the future and It knows that five minutes is only a short time and that after five minutes It gets control back.

For a specific concern you are worried about right now, get a pen and a piece of paper and write down in big letters at the top of the page
"I am worried about…"
"I am worried… …might happen".

Then underneath write down all the consequences you fear.

Let’s take an example "Fear of Flying".

I am worried about going on holiday because I have to fly.

The plane might crash
I might die
I might panic
I might panic and look foolish
I might feel embarrassed
I might faint
I might fight with the Flight Attendant to get out when she’s closing the door.
I might throw up
I might be too frightened to come home and be stuck
The tyres might explode
The wing might fall off
The engine might catch fire
We might get hijacked

Then on another sheet of paper rewrite the whole lot only this time put them in order of importance with the biggest fear at the top of the list and smallest fear at the bottom. And then on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is total uncontrollable screaming panicking fear, and 1 is feeling calm and peaceful, give a score to each of the items.

Then have a look for a theme.

With Flying Phobia common themes are fear of death, claustrophobia, fear of embarrassment, inability to have any impact on your own destiny for the time you are locked in the cabin, or fear of being different.

The theme is the real problem. That’s what you need to explore either on your own, using self-help books or tapes, or with a therapist whose approach you feel comfortable with.

One other thing… If you are an habitual worrier, then you might consider what you would be doing with your mind should you have nothing to worry about. Consider learning meditation, self-hypnosis, or a new skill or hobby to occupy, or train, your mind so that you are the one in the driving seat and no longer a passenger being dragged along to all the Hells that your thoughts can create for you.

Michael J. Hadfield MBSCH is a registered clinical hypnotherapist. You can experience his unique style on a popular range of hypnosis CD’s and tapes at Here you can also obtain treatment for a variety of problems and explore his approach to health, healing, and hypnosis.

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