Pastoral pressure points: Breaking the worry habit

Understanding the reasons for worry and anxiety and how to deal with them.

Archibald D. Hart, Ph.D., F.P.P.R., is professor of psychology at the Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, California. He is the author of the book The Anxiety Cure, published by Word, that can provide additional help for the reader.

Editorial note: This article is the first in a six-part series by Dr. Hart. The articles will appear in the January, March, May, July, September, and November issues of Ministry. They will deal with some of the most common and challenging psychological stresses facing today's pastor and the members of his/her congregation. Each article will appear under the general title "Pastoral Pressure Points."

Don't worry." It's so easy to say it. I've seen it emblazoned on T-shirts and bumper stickers. But it isn't easy not to worry. It's like telling someone who is overweight, "Just don't eat so much." It's true enough advice, but it's not really helpful! Many Christians are confused about how to respond to their worry. They are troubled by such scriptures as Luke 12:22 where Jesus tells His disciples not to worry about their lives.

Counseling people who worry excessively, let alone addressing the problem in oneself, is a vexing problem that faces many pastors today. Not only is it a common problem (referred to in mental health circles as "the common cold of the emotions"), but the tendency to worry also resists any logical approach.

For instance, trying to assure some one that what he or she is worrying about is extremely unlikely to happen will fall on deaf ears. In these days of fear following the terrorist attack on the United States, there is a lot of worry.

Worry is not only damaging to a person's tranquility, but it also threat ens a person's spiritual confidence. Those who worry fear that there may be something wrong with their faith in God. So the more a pastor or Christian leader knows about the causes of worry the better he or she will be able to help himself or herself, or someone who suffers from it.

I recommend that pastors preach on this topic regularly so that people can know the truth about it. This will help to relieve a lot of unnecessary guilt in those who suffer from its barbs. It will help to point them to a healthier emotional and spiritual life. Ignorance, after all, is one of Satan's greatest weapons.

To overcome worry one needs to understand what causes worry and come to see how useless it is to just worry. Finally, one should know how to turn worry into concern which is far more constructive.

What causes worry?

Worry is part of a much larger emotional challenge—that of anxiety in general. Worry itself is a form of anxiety, but there are many other forms of anxiety that are even more damaging. While worry is, and always has been, the most common form of anxiety, a more serious form of anxiety is called "panic anxiety." This kind of worry is as different from other forms of worry as night is from day, so the two should not be con fused with each other.

Panic anxiety usually starts suddenly and occurs in people who are high achievers and are therefore placing themselves under a particularly potent form of specific stress. Striking as many as ten percent of us, it is now considered to be an epidemic in our modern society. I will address this in a future article, but for now will restrict myself just to worry anxiety.

At some time or other we all go through a period of worry. It could happen when we discover a lump somewhere or when a loved one suddenly becomes ill. These life events are fundamentally threatening to us, so our anxiety comes up to warn us of some impending danger. That's when worry takes over.

There is nothing wrong with these short bursts of worry. In fact, they are designed into us by God and serve as important "warning signals." We need to attend to them because they can help us to take the action necessary to remove a given threat. So a healthy response to worry is to go to the doctor and have the lump checked, or to get as much information as possible about our loved one's condition.

Different kinds of worry

"But isn't it healthy to worry some times?" someone asked me once. I hesitated before answering—it's one of those trick questions. It all depends on how you define "healthy." Let's rephrase the question so as to make it answerable. "Is it impossible to go through life without worrying some times?" Yes it is.

The only people who never worry are those we call sociopaths—they are sick because they never feel anxiety over anything. I don't want to live next to them nor do I want to drive on the freeway with them. They are dangerous! Someone with no capacity to worry could easily be recruited to be a terrorist.

Yes, we all worry sometimes because worry is a form of anxiety that helps to alert us to danger. Worry only becomes unhealthy when it either persists too long or when it never leads us to a constructive solution. Understanding this distinction can point us to a better understanding of how we can deal with worry.

Worry becomes a problem, then, when it gets out of hand. Jesus commanded us not to worry (e.g., Luke 12:22). This and other passages of Scripture that refer to worry are not a judgment on the short periods of worry we all experience while we are trying to understand what it is that threatens us.

It is prolonged worry, that form of worry that is almost obsessional, that grabs and holds us and will not let go; this is the worry that Jesus asks us to give up by exercising our faith in God. Prolonged worry can become a habit. It undermines our trust in God's provision for all our needs and can even lead us into physical illness.

The most important point to remember about this form of worry is that it usually focuses on totally imagined threats and therefore cannot lead us to any concrete, constructive solution. No wonder Jesus tells us in Luke 12:25: "'And which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?"' (NKJV).

Persistent worry is not only unproductive in that it can never change anything, but it gets in the way of living a vibrant, fulfilling life. People who worry too much are incapacitated by it. They literally go round in circles and cannot find the exit.

Furthermore, research shows that persistent worry is actually bad for your health. It can cause headaches, lowered immune systems, and can be the source of stress that can lead into the panic anxiety zone.

Turning worry into action

Excessive worrying can become a habit of the mind. When this happens to us, we need to learn how to break this habit without ignoring the danger that might be causing it. The most effective way to do this is to take the time to sort out what part of our worry is useless (because it cannot change anything), and what part is constructive (because it can help us avoid a danger).

What this means is that we must find a way to convert our worry into something called "concern." If we can cut off the useless part of our worry and clearly find what should be of concern to us, we can learn to break our worry habit, and will be effectively following Jesus' command not to worry.

But how is concern (which is healthy) different from worry (which can become destructive)?

Simply put, worry is that kind of unproductive mental activity that keeps thoughts revolving endlessly in our minds. It gets stuck in its own painful rut, contributing nothing to help solve the problem.

On the other hand, concern is a kind of mental activity that focuses on a problem with a view to taking some action that can resolve it. I can worry about a lump in my body and do nothing about it, or I can turn that worry into concern and take some action—to go and see my doctor!

Again, this distinction is extremely important. Without it we cannot reasonably deal with worry and it could easily imprison us. Since the "warning system" underlying the phenomenon of worry is part of God's design, we cannot totally remove all worry. Thus, learning to turn our worry into "concern" preserves the warning system, and points toward a healthier way of resolving the worry.

Another form of worry

Before describing some practical ways for doing this, however, let me address one form of worry that has no redeemable value. It's that form of worry that is often driven by the irrational belief that if we worry about something it won't happen. Early in my life, I found myself doing this more often than I would have liked. Even though we know that worry won't change anything we often tend to perpetuate our worrying because we unconsciously believe that we must keep thinking about it, and even praying continuously, or else the event we are worrying about will happen.

Clearly this is irrational, and we should challenge the underlying belief. Of course we must pray and commit to God anything that bothers us. But then we must leave it with God. He has heard your prayer. It is not a lack of faith to stop praying at that point, but an expression that we do trust God.

We do not follow a deaf God. Believe this, leave what troubles you in God's hands, and you will truly begin to know His deepest peace.

Five steps to convert worry into concern

What are some practical ways that Christians can try and resolve a persistent worry problem? Here are five practical steps

1. Monitor your thinking so as to catch yourself worrying. You can do this by keeping a notebook close at hand, and as soon as you catch yourself worrying, write it down so that you can come back to it. Doing this relieves your brain of the need to keep reminding you of it.

2. Having written down what bothers you, intentionally postpone your worrying to a later time when you have a few minutes to spare. I call this "making a date with worry." Doing this helps you to feel that you are in control of your worry. This simple assertion of your control helps your mind "let go" of what is worrying you until the appointed time.

3. Set a time limit for your worrying. When the appointed hour comes for you to worry, set an alarm or a kitchen cooking timer. Set it for no more than five minutes. Research has shown that if you limit worrying to less than five minutes, you can avoid it becoming a habit. Longer than five minutes reinforces worry.

4. Concentrate on worrying. So, start the timer and devote the next five minutes to worrying about what it is you wrote down. Do it in an attitude of prayer, but force yourself to focus on and think about what's worrying you. Try to find a solution. Ask your self, "What can I do to deal with this worry?" In this way you will be able to change some of your worry to "concern." When you have figured out a few steps that you can actually take, write these down in you notebook.

5. When your worry time is up put away your notebook and stop your worrying. If you have figured out a course of action then go ahead and take this action. If you haven't, then hand it all over to God in prayer and go about your business. Your worrying isn't going to change anything, so try to ignore it.

This technique, while not perfect, has helped many cope with worry. It works because it helps you to con front your worries directly and not avoid them. It prevents what is called the "incubation" of worrying, a pat tern that reinforces worry.

A story

Some years ago, I heard the story of a woman who had learned to change worry into concern in a healthy way. A reporter visited this unusual woman, a widow, who had raised six children of her own and had adopted six others to give them a home.

"How have you been able to raise all these children by yourself—and do it so well?" asked the reporter.

"It's been very simple," replied the widow. "I'm in a partnership."

"A what?" asked the surprised reporter.

"A partnership," replied the widow calmly. "One day, a long time ago, I said to the Lord: 'Lord, I'll do the work if You will do the worrying,' and I haven't had a worry since."

Try helping yourself and your people to form such a partnership with God. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how well it works to keep your and their mind at peace!

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Archibald D. Hart, Ph.D., F.P.P.R., is professor of psychology at the Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, California. He is the author of the book The Anxiety Cure, published by Word, that can provide additional help for the reader.

January 2002

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