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Worry: A Bad Habit

What is the difference between being a conscientious lawyer and a worrier? While they may at first blush seem to be similar, an understanding of the physiology of worry shows how different they really are. Worrying involves spending a lot of time thinking about negative possibilities. Worrying becomes a problem when the excessive thinking of negative possibilities takes over one’s thoughts and mood. Every time we allow ourselves to experience anxiety (the clinical term for worry) we change our physiology. We invoke the stress response, to some degree, causing an increase in blood sugar level, blood pressure, and muscle tension. The harm of worry is that this physiological response to worry may stay stuck on, and long term, it can have very negative consequences.

Like many other habits, worry is a habit that is developed by practice. People get hooked on worry by engaging in this process without being aware of it. There are certain negative, psychological payoffs to worry. By worrying one can escape what one is presently involved in, the work at hand that needs to be done. Worry is a good way to avoid getting organized. When you’re worrying you don’t have to risk taking action, making a mistake, or to being wrong. Worrying is also a way to create a self-indulgent view of the value you are contributing to a client’s case. Worrying about the case does nothing helpful for the client. However, because of the stress response it is very tiring and allows the worrier to feel that something is actually being done.

If you are a worrier, there are some simple suggestions that can be used to untrain the worry habit. First, you need to become aware of the mental preoccupation and how often it is occurring. Many times worriers are not aware of their worrying thought processes until the physiological effects of the worrying become prominent. When you become aware that you are worrying, take responsibility for staying in the present. You may want to take some time with a trusted friend to get at the bottom of whatever you may be using worry to avoid. When you catch yourself in the midst of worry, it may be helpful to commit spending five minutes to thinking about the problem, and then after that period of time, if the thought reappears, just acknowledge that it has been thought through and a decision made. Or, you may want to make a decision to talk it through with somebody else. Involving other people in making a decision is a good way to de-energize the power of worry. Once you’re focused on what the problem is, ask yourself the question, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Usually, the answer to this question will be something that is not that significant. This immediately frames the issue in a lower priority; one that can then perhaps be dealt with systematically, by talking it through with a friend rather than having it become a mental obsession.

When the mental obsession does occur, try to practice the habit of not worrying. Allow your mind to go to some phrase that is helpful, such as; “No amount of worry will change this situation, so I’m not going to worry.” And then finally, as your worrying time is reduced, reward yourself for the time you would have spent worrying by doing something you really enjoy. Your successful pursuit of changing a habit that can be very destructive is something great to reward.

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