Don’t Worry Be Happy was an expression found on cards, posters, and shirts in the 1960s. It also was a popular song by Bobby McFerrin in the 1980s. It was created by Meher Baba, a spiritual teacher from India.
Even though we may not agree with all the teachings of Meher Baba, one must agree this is a great philosophy to have. While it is a catchy phrase, and makes sense, it often can be difficult to apply, at least when attempting to manage some of the negative symptoms of anxiety.
For example, when I reflect over my life, I remember some of the most wonderful moments in my life made me anxious. Things like driving my first car, going on my first date, buying our first house…. All of these moments made me anxious with anticipation which manifest in my body causing an increase in heart rate, tightness in my chest, and sweaty palms. (Remember that it is vital for all of us to keep up with our medical physicals and good self-care to rule out any possible medical causes of symptoms that may present like anxiety.)
Although these symptoms go mostly unnoticed in our body when we are excited, they take on a whole new meaning when associated with worry, especially chronic worry. And worry can be different for each of us but usually follows common themes of health, friends/family, work/school, finances, and/or just daily life.
As we age, many of us become more worried about health and safety. If this fear becomes excessive or chronic, it can increasingly limit our activities and social life.
For me, I experienced this several years ago, when I injured my rotator cuff. It was very painful and slow to heal, because I had to wear a sling for a while and be very careful not to use it. As a result, it became very stiff. I became so worried about not giving it time to heal that I began losing movement in my shoulder and arm. I thought this was happening because of the injury, which added to the problem.
However, after working with a rehab therapist, I learned that my worry was getting in the way of healing. I had images in my mind of doing more damage, which increased tension in my shoulder spurred thoughts of not being able to use it normally. This cycle was keeping me from facing my fear of using it and healing. This type of “cycle of worry” can occur in many different areas of our life. Due to physical discomfort or fear of some possible negative outcome we begin to avoid, control, and/or limit our interactions with the world around us and, sadly, reduce our quality of life.
Over the past decade, we have learned a lot about how some biological factors contribute to anxiety. At the same time, we have learned that experiences also can shape how we respond to the world around us. In other words, we have been conditioned to manage anxiety the way we do. If our response has been conditioned, it can be reconditioned.
As we go through our day, our experiences produce images in our brains, which produce automatic thoughts, which leads to physical sensations or tension, and then produce certain behaviors. These reactions to the world around you may be causing you to be at unease, nervous, physically uncomfortable, experiencing increased pain, or limiting your life in some way. This could be triggered by worrying about family members, what others are thinking about us, financial security, physical sensations that come from out of the blue, etc., and many other causes. The good news is that we can learn to lower physical tension, change the thoughts associated with these images in our mind, and respond differently to them to reduce our worry and raise our quality of life.
Working with a therapist in a group or individually can introduce you to, and help you develop, tools you can use to change your style of responding to anxiety and keep it from becoming excessive or chronic. The good news is that you can learn new ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to anxiety. Learning how to react differently to images in our mind, beliefs we may have regarding our worries, and ways we manage the physical tension in our body will raise our quality of life and improve our overall physical health.