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The Weight of Worry

Dov Finkelstein, LCSW

When most of us start worrying, we try to either suppress or quiet the thoughts. Find out why this may be counterproductive, plus the best way to alleviate anxiety.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dina Davidowitz,* a patient of mine, first came to see me because she hadn’t been able to function for over three months. The mother of eight (her kids range from three to twenty-one) was worried sick about her fifth-grade son Dovid,* who had been having a hard year in school.

Every single morning, Dina struggled to get Dovid out the door. To improve the situation, Dina even asked if Dovid could be switched to the grade’s parallel class — but the school was unable to accommodate the request.

The morning battles got a lot worse when Dovid refused to go to school altogether, despite serious consequences. The school was patient and understanding, but Dina began to dread the daily fights.

As soon as Dina would wake up in the morning, she would feel heart palpitations and a tight knot in her stomach. Throughout the day, she would worry about Dovid and what this behavior might portend for his future. At night, her anxiety kept her from sleeping. When she would finally fall asleep from utter exhaustion, she would wake up a few hours later, watching miserably as the sky lightened and a new, nerve-wracking day began.

After three weeks of absence, Dovid met with the menahel of the yeshivah. He empathized with Dovid’s feelings and tried to help him accept the situation. “If Hashem put you in this class, there must be a reason,” he said. The new perspective helped Dovid feel more positive, and he started attending school again.

Dina, however, was still struggling. She continued to dread the morning and, try as she might, she couldn’t take her mind off Dovid all day long.


The Worrying Mind

Over the years, anxiety has become a household term. You frequently hear people using the word in relation to everyday occurrences: “I’m so anxious about my in-laws coming over,” or “My upcoming finals are making me so anxious,” and so forth.

Yet, for 40 million Americans, anxiety is not just about dealing with the aggravations of daily life. It’s a group of disorders that are debilitating and constant. And according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, women are twice as likely to suffer as their male counterparts.

What exactly is anxiety? It’s how your body and mind react to the detection of a threat. On a physical level, when you experience an immediate danger, your body automatically goes into fight-or-flight mode, which prepares you to either attack or run away. The physical manifestations typically include palpitations, quickened breathing, and increased sweating. Many people mistake these symptoms for signs of a heart attack, which is why panic attacks are among the leading causes of emergency room visits.

Most of us are very familiar with the thinking part of anxiety — the “worrying mind,” which describes a chain of negative thoughts associated with fears of the future: What if something goes wrong, or already has gone wrong, and I can’t cope with it? When the “what if?” questions keep popping up without resolution, they can become more and more anxiety-producing.

These physical and mental reactions can be healthy — and even life-saving. Indeed, if you were deep in a forest and saw a lion coming at you, the fight-or-flight response would enable you to run away faster. Worrying can also help you plan for the future and resolve issues before they arise. For example, worrying about how you’re going to fit everything into your busy schedule may encourage you to plan your day better, ask your spouse for help, or maybe even eliminate tasks that aren’t priorities.

Problems occur, however, when the body has a fight-or-flight response in the absence of any real threat. If a person frequently has this type of reaction, he or she will likely be diagnosed with a panic disorder. Similarly, if a person is plagued by vague problems that have no concrete solution, or issues that remain unsolved, then the worry simply generates more and more anxiety, rather than helping the person solve her problems.

This was the case with Dina, who was consumed with negative thoughts about her son — and herself. What if Dovid continues to have trouble in yeshivah? she wondered. Maybe he’ll end up being an at-risk kid. Do I have the strength to deal with this problem? I’m already so overwhelmed. Maybe I’ll have a nervous breakdown and won’t be able to take care of the rest of the family. Then the kids will have to go into foster care….”

Since Dina’s worries didn’t motivate her to resolve the problem, the thoughts simply snowballed, adding new layers of fear and anxiety until she found herself pondering the worst possible scenario. It got to a point where she honestly felt that doom was right at her doorstep.

Most of us are not at that level of anxiety, but we still struggle with the issue. In fact, approximately 15 percent of Americans report worrying for eight hours a day — or more. Those seeking psychological treatment report feeling anxious nearly all of the time. Whether it’s about relationships, a job, or even physical safety, excessive worrying can prevent you from achieving your goals. It’s also like a blinding fog, hampering your ability to see the good things in your life.


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