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Behavioural Therapy Blog Archive

Don't worry - be happy!

Date Posted: 30th December, 2015

In order to understand stress, anxiety, "worries", phobias and depression, the best place to start is with the "autonomic" functions of the nervous system, which play a vital role when responding to stress.

Two systems are present within the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is involved in the fear and anxiety response and the parasympathetic nervous system is involved in the relaxation response.

Both of these systems are controlled by nerve impulses and hormones, which are activated depending on the situation. The systems are normally balanced but when a person suffers from stress, anxiety, phobia and/or depression, the balance of the systems can be disrupted, often resulting in stress-related health problems.

Normally, when a threatening stimulus is recognised, the human brain triggers a fear response, otherwise known as the 'fight or flight response', through the sympathetic nervous system. This prepares the body to either fight or flee from the danger of the threat by releasing hormones to all organs and systems in the body.

However, if these responses happen when there is no real danger present, they can result in phobias, anxiety states or stress-related health problems. Many different biological and physiological disorders could be caused by a continual inappropriate release of stress hormones, the most common being an increase in cortisol in the blood. This can then interfere with certain mood enhancing neurotransmitters like serotonin, causing stress, anxiety, phobias, depression, insomnia and increased sensitivity to pain.

What IS a worry?

We often use the term "worried" - but how often do we stop to wonder exactly how a "worry" comes about?

Well, it's actually not all that complicated - although it often feels as though it is! We have to get a bit technical about language to understand how it works. When we think about the future, we can do it in a few different ways. The two most common forms are the simple future ("I shall meet a difficult customer at the shop today") and the future subjunctive ("What if I were to meet a difficult customer today?").

When we think in the subjunctive ("what if...?), we hardly ever reach a solution, because we often become uncomfortable or anxious - and try to stop thinking about the subject. This means that the subject keeps surfacing, staying as a problem and not being solved - and being buried again until it re-surfaces. When we think in the future simple, however, we can almost always work out a solution - maybe it's a bit difficult sometimes, but we do at least find a solution and we can put the recurring thought (or "worry") properly to bed.

So the trick with worries is to convert them from "what if...?" thoughts to "as if..." statements. So, instead of worrying with a thought like "Want if my boss piles my desk with work and I can't cope?", try thinking, instead "I'm just going to think about my boss piling my desk with, what shall I say to her?". It's surprising how quickly we can actually work out what to do to be effective once we think in the future simple - and how long we can wallow if we think in the subjunctive. So start converting "what ifs" to "as ifs" or "why nots" or "so whats" and putting those worries under control!