Martin Rossman, M.D. [ Mindset ] Worry is the most common form of suffering in the United States. It is a key component of anxiety and chronic stress, and is often at the heart of overeating, alcoholism, cigarette smoking, drug abuse, and other compulsive but ultimately ineffective attempts to make it go away.
Solving problems is the positive, healthy function of worry, but worry can easily turn into a bad habit of endless rumination about frightening, threatening, or simply annoying matters that ultimately cannot be solved.
Worry lives in the thinking part of the brain, behind the forehead, in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex, the most uniquely human part of the brain.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is an uncomfortable feeling of apprehension or dread. It’s the “oh my God, something bad is going to happen” feeling. It lives in the limbic system, an evolutionarily older, more emotional and intuitive part of the brain.
Stress, the third element in our uncomfortable triad, is a physical response to danger that prepares the body for survival in threatening circumstances. It is an instantaneous, unconscious reaction activated in the oldest, most primitive part of our brain, the part we call the reptilian brain.
According to a recent analysis done at the University of California, San Diego, the amount of information consumed by the American public in 2008 was 3.6 zettabytes, or the equivalent of a seven-foot-high stack of novels covering the entire United States, including Alaska.
Much of the content of the news programs, documentaries, films, emails, and advertisements we are exposed to every day is alarming, frightening, or problematic. Fear sells news, entertainment, and many other products, from insurance policies to household cleaners to medications, because fearful information is hard for the brain to ignore.
Being tuned in to every signal that might be frightening makes sense in the wild, but we need a different mental strategy in an artificial, fear-laden media environment.
A runaway imagination fueled by fear, information overload, stress hormones, caffeine, and the contagious anxiety of others not only creates tension during the day but can continue to work into the night, interfering with our sleep and pouring fuel on the fire of brain strain and exhaustion. The result is a burgeoning epidemic of worry, anxiety, and stress.
It is commonly said that 50 to 75 percent of all visits to primary-care doctors are for symptoms and illnesses directly attributable to the effects of stress. Chronic stress can cause not only anxiety, depression, and insomnia but also headaches, neck and back pain, indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, trouble breathing, and a host of other physical symptoms. I can make the case that virtually every illness is stress-related because it is either caused by stress, aggravated by stress, or in itself is stressful. A great deal of a primary-care doctor’s job is to try to determine if there is another type of illness hiding between the stress-induced symptoms.
At this critical time in human history, when we are facing so many personal, social, and global challenges, it is imperative that we learn to use our brains to full capacity and not fritter away energy on futile worry .
Fortunately, recent brain science findings, clinical research, and time-honored traditions all show us that we can learn to use our imagination, and the brain pathways that it uses, to replace worry and stress with calmness, curiosity, and creativity. We can learn to reset our arousal levels, stimulate creative problem solving, and learn from the wisdom of our emotional/ intuitive brains. As we learn to use our brain capabilities in new ways, we build the confidence that comes from successfully meeting life’s challenges.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Giulia van Pelt, Flickriver Creative Commons