Mark Twain said: My life has been filled with calamities, some of which actually happened. There seems to be nothing more fictitious than the worry that goes on in our heads. Now there’s a study that proves it. Researchers at the University of Cincinnati found that eight-five percent (yes - 85%) of what we worry about never happens. Moreover, the study found that 79% of us handle the 15% that does happen in ways that surprise us with our ability to turn the situation around. [i]
We laugh at Mark Twain’s comment because we can see ourselves in it. But worry is no joke. It causes serious problems. The stress reactions worry excites flood the brain with stress hormones. This makes us prone to disease and emotional problems. Stress hormones also debilitate higher brain function, dampening memory, the capacity to learn and the ability to sustain peak performance. Seniors who worry are twice as likely to develop dementia. Worry is also the threshold to clinical depression.
My friend Martha was once asked to help out an elderly woman she didn’t know by driving her to a doctor’s appointment. The woman was described to Martha as very elderly, nearly ninety years old. When Martha met the woman, she was surprised to find that she was not as elderly as she expected. At most, she looked to be in her mid- seventies.
“Do you mind me asking how old you are?” Martha asked on the drive to the doctor.
“Ninety-three,” the woman answered.
Martha was astonished. “You look so much younger,” she said. “What’s your secret?”
“Well, honey,” she answered, “Twenty-three years ago I made the decision to stop worrying and I havn’t wasted a moment on worry since.”
Martha said her mind was sharp and she was joy to spend time with. Her decision made her younger at every level. Think of all the energy she gained through her decision not to worry. Think of all the anxiety she spared herself, all the needless stress she avoided. It showed on her face and in her attitude.
It’s possible to make this same choice to let go of worry and gradually move past it altogether. You can rewire your brain to quiet the worry circuit. A tool as simple as The Clear Button can get you started. Here’s how it works.
The Clear Button
- Imagine there is a button at the center of your palm that’s connected directly to your brain. This is the Clear Button. When you push it, it sends a signal that stops worried, stressful thinking.
- So let’s role play it. See yourself as anxious and beginning to spin a worried, pessimistic yarn that could easily proliferate into catastrophic thinking.
- Then you remember the Clear Button. You hold your left hand in front of you, palm facing you. You press the button at the center of your palm and keep pressing it. As you do this, imagine an electrical signal travels to the lower brain and quiets the negative, worried chatter.
- Next, you become aware of your breath and you count to three, seeing each number as a color.
- Take a breath, count “1,” and see the number as red,
- Take a second breath, count “2,” and see it as blue,
- Take a third breath, count “3,” and see it as green.
- As you exhale on the final breath, you come into the present moment, right here, right now, and you relax, letting go completely. Quietly, re-engage with the situation and consciously choose to be at peace.
The part of the primitive brain in charge of stress reactions is fully developed in a human being at age two. The intelligence of the primitive brain is at the level of a two year old. When a worried person frets and ruminates over the smallest matter, we often say they’re acting like a two-year-old. That description is not far from the truth. Neurologically, this is the system that’s in charge. You don’t use logic or reason on a two year old. You distract them. Counting to “3” and seeing the numbers as colors is a form of distraction.
Here’s the benefit: When we’re worried or under stress, all we see are problems. But once we’ve quieted the brain, control will shift from the lower to the higher brain where creative intelligence kicks in. We start to see solutions. This simple tool is a powerful first step in rewiring the brain to extinguish worry at the point of inception.
[i] Robert Leahy, Ph.D., The Worry Cure, Random House, 2005, p. 109