The Worry Trick (2016) is a no-nonsense guide to dealing with worry and anxiety. Drawing from acceptance and commitment therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, it breaks down where worry comes from and offers concrete steps on how to face and ultimately overcome it.
Introduction: Reveal the nasty trick that your brain pulls on you, and change your relationship with worry.
Table of Contents
- Introduction: Reveal the nasty trick that your brain pulls on you, and change your relationship with worry.
- How worry tricks you into worrying more
- Ignore your instincts and focus on changing your relationship with worry
- Learn how your worries announce themselves when they enter your head
- Take the time to humor your worries
- Three simple exercises for developing a resistance to worry
- About the Author
You know the feeling. You’re going about your day, as normal – you could be on the bus, or sitting down to dinner with your family. Maybe you’re lying in bed, trying to sleep. Suddenly a thought comes – unprompted and unwelcome.
I’ve got to give that report to my boss tomorrow. This is quickly followed by several more nagging thoughts. What if it’s not what she’s looking for? It’s a bit wordy isn’t it, what if she thinks it’s too long?
The chain reaction continues. What if I lose my job? I’ve got that dentist appointment coming up, I can’t afford to lose my job now.
And so on. The thoughts or situations might be different, but the feeling is always the same: Worry.
Now, worry isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it can alert us to some danger or problem that we then proceed to fix. But chances are that’s not why you’re listening to reading a summary on how to stop worrying.
If you’re like a large proportion of people, worry is a problem. You can’t stop it, you can’t control it, and no matter how many times you’re told to “just stop worrying,” it won’t go away. It’s a losing battle.
But it turns out worry isn’t exactly fighting fair. In this summary, you’ll learn the deceptive trick that worry plays on your brain, and how you can use this knowledge to change your approach and perception.
Let’s start at the beginning: What is this worry trick?
How worry tricks you into worrying more
Ask yourself this: What’s going to happen tomorrow? If it’s a weekday, maybe you’ll wake up at the usual time. Go to work. Traffic could be bad, so you might be a little bit late – Why not? It’s happened before. You could be in a serious car accident. It’s not impossible.
The thing is, we all go through life as if we know what to expect. Chances are tomorrow will be as regular and forgettable as the vast majority of other days in your life. A worry-free mind knows this. So if a doubt arises, it’ll leave just as easily.
But if you suffer from excess worry, things look different. You experience doubts about the future as if they were immediate dangers.
Worry loves it when this happens. When you treat your doubt as if it were danger, you naturally respond to it in a way that makes it worse. That makes it grow.
Think about it. What do you do when you start to worry? When you have that first sneaking feeling of doubt? Because your brain interprets it as danger, your first reaction is to try to stop it. This ends up with you arguing with yourself, and when you argue with yourself you can never win.
You see, you can only worry about the future – about something that could happen, however unlikely. But the truth is, you don’t know what will happen in the future. And it’s incredibly difficult to prove that something won’t happen, no matter how hard you try. In fact, to the worrying mind, the more you try and fail, the more evidence there is that the bad thing could happen!
So, reasoning and arguing make it worse. What about distraction?
That’s about as easy as being asked not to think about your first childhood pet. Even if you haven’t thought about Flopsy the bunny in decades, I bet he’s at the front of your mind now. Distraction doesn’t work either.
That’s the worry trick. Doubt interpreted as danger, which you naturally try to stop. The harder you try, the more successful the trick, and the more you worry.
If you keep trying to stop something but that just makes it worse, it means your methods need examining. You need to stop trying to change the worry itself. Instead, try changing the relationship that you have with worry.
Let’s explore that idea.
Ignore your instincts and focus on changing your relationship with worry
As with everything in your life, you have some sort of relationship with your worry. And just like anything else – work, alcohol, your partner – this relationship can be healthy or unhealthy.
A lot of people have a workable relationship with their worry – it comes and goes, sometimes helping them focus on a problem area in their lives, or sometimes just reflecting a broader state of general anxiety. It’s like a neighbor or a co-worker who you see occasionally, but isn’t a huge part of your life.
It’s chronic worry that’s the problem. This is where the worry is constant, unavoidable and crippling. This is what you need to examine, and ultimately change. If this sounds like you, there are likely two possible relationships you have with your worry.
The first option is that you interpret a worry as a legitimate and important warning. You take this seriously, so you look for ways to stop the thing from happening, reassure yourself that the thing won’t happen or try to protect yourself from the thing if and when it does happen.
These responses are natural, but ultimately harmful – worry is tricking you into making things worse. Arguing with it, avoiding it, researching it or even making little rituals to stop it, all reinforce its validity, and the worry escalates.
The second possible relationship with worry is when you start worrying about how much you’re worrying. You might be aware of how illogical or debilitating all this worry is, so you try to address it from that angle. This results in distraction or simply trying to stop the thought, leading to alcohol, medication or something like comfort eating.
As you may guess, none of this works to improve your relationship with worry. You’re using gasoline to try to put out a fire – just like worry wants you to.
What feels like it should work, isn’t going to work here. You’re going to have to keep in mind that your gut is wrong, and to get past the worry trick, you’re going to have to do the exact opposite of what your instincts are screaming at you to do.
The goal isn’t to make the worry go away. It’s to develop a more manageable and workable relationship with worry, so it no longer tricks you into letting it consume your life.
Hopefully now you’ve been able to identify your relationship with worry, and realize that a counterintuitive problem needs a counterintuitive response.
Let’s have a look at those kinds of responses.
Learn how your worries announce themselves when they enter your head
What are worry’s two favorite words? If you need a hint, go over a couple of worries in your head: What if I lose my job? What if I get sick?
Congratulations, you have isolated the first weakness in worry’s trick. You can use these two words – “what if” – to start beating worry at its own game. Because worries announce themselves in this way when they enter your head, you can catch them and see what they’re really doing.
If the thought of calling out your worries fills you with, well… worry, keep in mind that we’ve already established that ignoring them doesn’t work.
To change your relationship with worry, you need to be one step ahead. Let’s start by breaking down these worry sentences. There’s a “what if” clause, followed by whatever terrible possibility wants to occupy your mind at the moment – let’s call this a catastrophe clause.
What does the “what if” clause actually tell you? Say you’re thinking: “What if I’m in a car accident?” That’s not something you think at the moment that an accident happens. There’s no “what if” about it – it’s happening.
How about you’re driving along and you realize you accidentally ran a red light? A car accident definitely could happen at this stage, but you’re still not thinking “What if I have a car accident?” Your instincts are taking over, and you’re trying to stop that accident happening.
You only ever think “what if” when everything’s fine. The “what if” clause isn’t about self-protection. It doesn’t save you, or stop anything. It means “let’s pretend”. Let’s pretend I’m in a car accident.
The catastrophe clause could be any hypothetical scenario, so it just becomes a game of Mad Libs. When you ignore the “what if” clause and focus on whatever unlikely drama is filling the catastrophe clause, you have a steady stream of what feel like legitimate concerns.
You need to learn to notice this “what if” clause. Buy a packet of candies or mints which state the quantity on the package. A 60 pack of Tic Tacs should work.
Whenever you notice a “what if” thought, eat one of those Tic Tacs. This is how you will count your worries. After a week, you’ll be much better at noticing these thoughts, and start observing them passively.
The goal? You’ll no longer be in the bad habit of automatically ignoring or distracting yourself from your worries. When you’re not distracted, you can catch the “what if’s” and start seeing them for the game of “let’s pretend” that they really are.
Take the time to humor your worries
Imagine you’re at a dinner party. Due to an unfortunate seating arrangement, you are stuck in the corner next to the most argumentative guest at the table. No matter what you say, he just has to disagree. You say the weather’s nice, he says it’s awful. You like basketball, he thinks football is better. It’s exhausting, and you can’t enjoy your meal.
What are your options here? You could try arguing, but that’s just giving him what he wants – and what you don’t want. Ignoring him just makes him try harder. Hitting him is tempting, but probably not the best idea.
Here’s how you deal with this thinly-veiled metaphor for worry: Try humoring him. Nod along, tell him he’s absolutely right. You don’t have to actually believe the nonsense he’s saying, you’re just trying to have a peaceful meal.
Worry is a heckler at your comedy show. If you work it into your routine, it puts the power back in your hands.
Obviously, this is easier said than done, especially if you’ve spent a long time going with the intuitive but unhelpful response of fighting with your worry.
One way to get started humoring your worry is to exaggerate it. Say you’re thinking, “What if I mess up my presentation tomorrow?” Add an over-the-top “yes, and” onto the end. “Yes, and then my coworkers will run me laughing out of the office.” Or “yes, and it will be on the front page of the company newsletter.” You’re still acknowledging the worry, just altering your reaction to it.
Try this experiment. Write out one of your worries, in its most detailed, terrifying form. Keep it at around 25 words. Set aside 25 of those Tic Tacs that you bought to count your worries.
Stand in front of a mirror, and read the worry out loud, 25 times. Eat one of the Tic Tacs each time, to make your counting conscious and deliberate.
If you’re suffering from chronic worry, this may be a pretty stressful experience. Pay attention to how upsetting the worry is at the last repetition compared to the first. You will notice that it gets easier.
If you humor and make room for your worry, you’ll eventually see through the trick. It’s doubt, not danger.
Now, though this technique can help, it isn’t always effective or practical, particularly when the worry is entrenched in your daily life. In the final section, you’ll learn three specific exercises you can do every day to reduce the power that worry has over you.
Three simple exercises for developing a resistance to worry
Worry – as with a lot of chronic illnesses – doesn’t come with a quick fix. You need to build your strength over time. There are three techniques you can work into your day that will help strengthen your worry immune system, so to speak. Think of them as a daily vitamin, or an exercise routine.
First, set aside some time for your worry. Just like a busy office manager who keeps her door open for employees at a specific time, make an appointment where you can focus on your worries. Literally block out a convenient time in your calendar.
You’ve already seen that shutting them out makes them worse, so give them the time to be heard. Don’t try to fix them, or change them, or argue with them – just let yourself worry.
It’s best if you can do this out loud while watching yourself in front of a mirror. You might feel silly, but seeing and hearing yourself takes it out of your head and lets you get a more realistic perspective. It’s also helpful learning to postpone your worry to a time when it’s less inconvenient.
The second daily worry vitamin is a simple breathing exercise. Being told to “take a deep breath” is a bit of a cliché, but it works – if you do it right. The trick is to breath out completely before taking your breath, so it can be full. Slowly in through your nose, hold it, then out through your mouth.
If you find yourself forgetting to breathe properly, use common signals from the world around you as reminders – a car horn or a phone notification, for example.
Third and finally, develop a daily habit of mindfulness meditation. This process of passively observing thoughts is quite popular, with plenty of resources to get started. If you’ve never tried it before, here’s your first lesson.
Find a quiet place and sit comfortably for a minute or two, becoming aware of your thoughts and sensations. Lightly focus your attention on something constant – people usually use their breathing, but it can be anything. The sound of a fan for example.
As this focus is interrupted by your thoughts – as it naturally will be – don’t try to fight them. Just observe them as they come, then slowly return your attention back to whatever it was you were focusing on. Do this for ten minutes a day, and you’ll find yourself more aware of your thoughts, and more at peace with your worries.
Work on making these three habits a regular part of your day. Soon enough you’ll have the techniques and the strength to see through the trick, and develop a better relationship with worry.
All your natural reactions to worry just end up making it worse. It’s not an enemy that you need to fight with or hide from. The chronic worry that keeps you up at night, or stops you from enjoying your family time, is just worry tricking you into engaging with it in a way that makes it more powerful.
Just like a matador might make a bull charge with a colorful cape, worry tests you with provocative but ultimately empty “what if” phrases. Knowing this, you can see through the trick. Humor the worry so it loses its power, or try simple breathing or meditation exercises to remain in control.
Exiling your worry will never work – you need to work on cultivating a healthy, workable relationship with it. Sure, it’s easy to get overwhelmed or caught up in the troubles of life. But though worries are part of it, they don’t need to be a big part.
About the Author
David A. Carbonell
Psychology, Personal Development
“The Worry Trick” is a self-help book that explores the concept of worry and how it can negatively impact our lives. The author, David A. Carbonell, a cognitive-behavioral therapist, provides a comprehensive guide on how to identify and overcome our brain’s tendency to expect the worst-case scenario. The book is well-researched, engagingly written, and offers practical strategies for managing worry and anxiety.
- The Worry Trick: The book introduces the concept of the “worry trick,” which is the brain’s tendency to anticipate negative outcomes and create worst-case scenarios. This trick is rooted in our evolutionary history and is meant to keep us safe, but it can also be detrimental to our well-being.
- Types of Worry: Carbonell identifies two types of worry: “prophesying” and “torturing.” Prophesying worry involves predicting negative outcomes, while torturing worry involves dwelling on the potential negative outcomes. The book provides practical strategies for dealing with both types of worry.
- The Fear of Failure: The book explores how the fear of failure can triggers our brain’s worry center, leading to increased anxiety and stress. Carbonell offers strategies for reframing our thinking about failure and developing a growth mindset.
- The Power of Mindfulness: The book emphasizes the importance of mindfulness in managing worry and anxiety. Carbonell provides practical tips for cultivating mindfulness, such as focusing on the present moment, observing our thoughts without judgment, and engaging in physical activities that promote mindfulness.
- The Role of Thoughts: The book explains how our thoughts and beliefs can contribute to our worry and anxiety. Carbonell offers strategies for identifying and challenging negative thoughts and replacing them with more positive and realistic ones.
- The Importance of Self-Compassion: The book emphasizes the importance of self-compassion in managing worry and anxiety. Carbonell provides practical tips for developing self-compassion, such as practicing self-kindness, acknowledging our imperfections, and treating ourselves with the same kindness and understanding we would offer to a friend.
- The Role of Physical Activity: The book highlights the physical and mental health benefits of regular physical activity, which can help reduce worry and anxiety. Carbonell provides practical tips for incorporating physical activity into our daily lives.
- The Importance of Sleep: The book emphasizes the importance of getting enough sleep in managing worry and anxiety. Carbonell provides practical tips for improving sleep quality, such as establishing a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding caffeine and electronic screens before bedtime, and creating a relaxing bedtime routine.
- The Benefits of Seeking Support: The book highlights the benefits of seeking support from friends, family, and mental health professionals in managing worry and anxiety. Carbonell provides practical tips for finding and utilizing support systems.
- The book provides a comprehensive understanding of the psychological and neurological mechanisms underlying worry and anxiety.
- The author offers practical strategies for managing worry and anxiety that are grounded in cognitive-behavioral therapy.
- The book is well-researched and provides numerous examples and case studies to illustrate the concepts discussed.
- The author’s writing style is engaging and accessible, making the book an enjoyable read.
- Some readers may find the book’s focus on cognitive-behavioral therapy to be too narrow, as other therapeutic approaches may also be effective in managing worry and anxiety.
- The book’s emphasis on individual effort may overlook the importance of social support and systemic change in addressing worry and anxiety.
Overall, “The Worry Trick: How Your Brain Tricks You Into Expecting the Worst and What You Can Do About It” is a highly recommended read for individuals struggling with excessive worry and anxiety. David A. Carbonell’s expertise and compassionate approach shine through, offering practical tools and insights that can help readers regain control over their lives. By understanding the worry trick and implementing the strategies outlined in the book, readers can break free from the cycle of worry and embrace a more peaceful and fulfilling existence.
If you’re ready to take back your life from worry, then I highly recommend reading The Worry Trick. It’s an informative, helpful, and inspiring book that will teach you how to overcome your fears and live a more fulfilling life.