Worry may well be one of the most common causes of suffering in America. Besides being troublesome in and of itself, worry is also a contributing factor for overeating, alcoholism, smoking, drug abuse and many other compulsive disorders.
In this interview, Dr. Martin Rossman, author of “The Worry Solution” book and CD set, provides simple and practical tools for addressing chronic worry. Rossman has a long-standing interest in the practical importance of attitudes, beliefs and emotions in mind-body medicine.
His awareness of the impact of worry came early in his career. After graduating from medical school in 1969 and finishing his internship at a county clinic in Oakland, California, he ran an urban house call practice for about a year and a half.
He initially started doing house calls in order to find out why people were having such problems implementing healthy lifestyle changes.
“I saw the effects of poverty, ignorance and lack of opportunity, which creates a great deal of stress, depression and anxiety,” he says.
“[P]eople are trying to get through the day and manage their stress. All of these things, be it cigarettes, sugar, alcohol or drugs, temporarily relieve the pain of depression and anxiety. The trouble is, one, they’re short-acting so they tend to be addicting, [and] they don’t address the cause or solve the problems …
The second thing is that over time, the toxic effects of these medications, alcohol, drugs or cigarettes, start to override the beneficial effects. It’s what I call ‘toxic coping efforts’
Anyhow, I was treating all these people that were really creating their diseases by the way that they were coping, either through junk food, or sugar, or too much food, or alcohol, or drugs, cigarettes and so on.
Deciding I needed to get better at helping people learn how to change their lifestyle, I started to study motivational psychology and ways to help people care better for themselves and learn how to change habits that were costing them in terms of their health. That’s been my passion for the rest of my career.”
His investigations led him into the holistic health movement. In time, he incorporated a number of different complementary strategies, including acupuncture, Chinese medicine, nutrition and a variety of mind-body healing strategies, all of which led to the creation of “The Worry Solution.”
Science has repeatedly shown that anxiety and stress take a profound toll on health, and may even be a more significant influence than poor diet. Some studies suggest as much as 75 to 90 percent of illnesses have some sort of emotional underpinning.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Rossman says. “When you look at it, there are the direct effects of stress, which are significant. When I talk to physicians, I sometimes say ‘A huge part of the job of a primary physician is to try to tell what isn’t anxiety and stress’ …
Then there are the indirect effects, which are the biological and physical manifestations of the poor choices in eating, the excessive alcohol, smoking of cigarettes, the taking of drugs and so on.
Including the fact that when you don’t make those good lifestyle choices, you end up on a half a dozen different medications …
Then you start treating the side effects of the medications. They don’t really cure those diseases. That’s why they’re chronic diseases. The cure, if there is one, is really, for many people, a pretty radical change in lifestyle and that often begins in the mind.”
The Power of Visualization
Imagery is the natural language of your brain, which is in part why visualization and guided imagery exercises are so powerful for changing thoughts and behavior.
Most successful people, be it actors, business people or athletes, have learned — either through instinct or training — to use their imaginations on purpose. According to Rossman:
“Imagery, which seems so invisible and ethereal and airy-fairy, is one of the most powerful faculties we have as human beings for not only changing our behaviors, but changing our minds, which changes our physiology. It changes our body. It changes our health.”
Your imagination can also be employed to help you set goals, stay on track and develop a deeper self-awareness about what and how you think.
“I teach people how to use imagery on purpose, for the sake of better health and healing, as well as being successful in life,” Rossman says. “The very first skill I teach in ‘The Worry Solution’ — and I think this is very important — is how to turn it off.
Because the default position of the imagination is to worry, to look for danger, to look for problems. The human brain has a decidedly negative bias. The reason it has that is because the very first and most important job of the brain is to keep you alive.”
Indeed, imagination allows us to remember and learn from our own and others’ mistakes, and it allows you to imagine what MIGHT happen. However, this strength can easily become our own undoing if left unchecked.
Rossman’s book is not about stopping worrying altogether, which may be impossible, but rather learning to separate out what’s useful to worry about and what’s not.
Finding Your Way Back to Neutral
First, however, you need to learn to “put your mind in neutral,” using what Rossman calls the three keys to calmness: breathing, relaxation and visualization.
To do this, simply breathe and relax your body part by part; then imagine being in a beautiful, peaceful place where you feel safe. This could be either a real or imaginary place. Spend 10 or 20 minutes there to interrupt the stress response.
This will disengage your fight or flight response, allowing your physiology to return to equilibrium, or what is also termed “the relaxation response.” This is a compensatory repair, renew and recharge state that brings you back to balance. As noted by Rossman:
“So-called primitive people don’t live in a constant state of arousal like we modern people who have so much input, so much news, so much social media … They might get attacked, they might run into a dangerous beast, they might get stressed for a while and then they go back into neutral.
We almost never go back to neutral unless we adopt a practice: a yoga practice, a mountain mindfulness meditation practice, a deep-relaxation practice or a guided imagery practice. We really need that. The first thing I teach people is how to interrupt their imagining and then use your imagination to go into neutral.
Then I teach them a series of skills beyond that to solve problems to stimulate healing in the body, to access their inner wisdom … [T]he book is complete in itself but I also made a set of two CDs where I give people nine guided imagery processes that I describe in the book.
It was my attempt to provide a home study course for people. How can I learn to reduce my stress, manage my stress, get to sleep more easily? How can I use this tool? The book gives you the science and the explanations of the case histories, but the CDs will actually lead you through the processes that will make it pretty easy for you to learn how to do this.”
Most Americans Are Too Busy for Their Own Good
Rossman stresses the importance of allowing more time for relaxation, communication, relationships and taking it easy. “There’s almost no other country in the world that works like we do in the United States. It was just startling to me,” he says.
About two decades ago, statistics revealed Americans work more days and longer hours than the Germans and the Japanese — two countries well known for their hardworking cultures. “We overtook them about 25 years ago and it hasn’t slowed down,” Rossman notes.
Most European countries also have six to eight weeks of vacation every year — vacation that employees MUST take. This is virtually unheard of in the U.S., and those who are allowed a certain amount of vacation often do not take it for one reason or another. In some countries, mid-day siestas are also the norm, and everything simply shuts down for a few hours.
“We’re way off the spectrum. We try to do more and more. We try to know more and more. We try to be involved more and more. We have to learn to go the other way, at least some of the time. Turn it off. Because now what we’re doing is we’re missing sleep. The daytime stress has gone into the nighttime …
This just compounds the stress response and the toll of stress. This ends up getting seen in the doctor’s office. Ninety percent of the time — because the doctors are also highly stressed and are being compressed into an unrealistic mode of practice — the answer is pharmaceuticals. We can do better than that,” Rossman says.
What If Your Body Could Speak?
One of the least effective ways to initiate change in someone is to tell them what to do. One of the most effective is to allow the answers to rise into conscious awareness from the inside. This is one of the great powers of guided imagery. For example, if you’re having heart trouble, imagine that your heart could speak to you. What would it say? What does it want? If you have chronic headaches, imagine your head or brain speaking to you. What does it need in order to not hurt so much?
“It’s quite remarkable what comes from people. That knowledge is actually inside the body or in the unconscious,” Rossman says. “If people will get quiet and listen, they very often know what they need in order to get back into a more comfortable and healthier kind of lifestyle.
I find that when I work with people that way, and in that relationship, I’m honoring the wisdom that’s built into their body and I’m showing them how to access it … When it comes from the inside out, people treat it differently than when they’re being told to do it by someone else … It has an authenticity and people are often willing to listen to that and start to change.”
Get Your Worries Out of Your Head and Onto Paper
Another helpful strategy to clear your mind of worries is to write them down, either on paper or electronically, depending on your preference. By writing it down, it’s easier to let go of it mentally. An analogy can be made between your mind and a computer. Now and then, you need to defrag the hard drive. Your brain also needs to clean out periodically and reorganize the information in order to not get bogged down with unnecessary bits of data. Writing things down can be surprisingly effective.
“First thing that I have people do is write down everything that you’re worried about: the big things, the little things, the petty things [and] the huge things. See if you can just do a mind dump and write everything down that you’re worried about. That itself is very useful,” Rossman says.
“The next step is to divide them. Take those worries and divide them into the things that you could possible do something about, something you can’t possibly do anything about on a practical level, and things you’re not sure about. Then we go into the steps of how to deal with the ones you can, how to deal with the ones you can’t and how to deal with the ones you’re not sure about. But that writing process is surprisingly helpful for a lot of things …
One of the things that writing it down always does is it takes it out of the invisible and it makes it visible. When you write it down, it actually brings it out of your head and brings it out into the world where you can see it and review it.”
Imagining the Future You Want
Rossman first learned about positive outcome imagery from Dr. Rachel Remen, who recommends it for cancer patients. A cancer diagnosis raises a lot of fears and worries, even when the cancer is known to be relatively curable. When images of death, dying and side effects come up, recognize these thoughts and feelings as fear. Your fears are legitimate, but they do not necessarily mirror reality, and this is an important distinction to make.
“It’s only a fear. It doesn’t mean that’s what’s going to happen, because over 50 percent of cancers are even now curable … I teach people how to create an image of the outcome they would rather have. It might be an image of them five or 10 years down the line, enjoying their grandchildren or being in their doctor’s office, seeing that they have very good results and that they’re healthy and they’re doing the things they love to do,” Rossman says.
“When the fear comes up, you sort of mentally … use a red circle and a slash, like a no smoking sign … You kind of stamp at that fear with that mental image of the red circle and slash. You move it out like it’s a slide. You move in the slide of the outcome you would prefer to see. What you’re doing is you’re kind of voting.
You’re saying ‘Here’s my fear; here’s my hope. Which one do I want to put my energy into?’ Given that you’re making the choices, you’re doing the treatments and so on, it doesn’t behoove you to invest your energy [into] your fears.
When your fears come up and you learn how to recognize them, say ‘Yup. Those are my fears. I’m not going to concentrate on that. I’m going to move it out. I’m going to move in my image of what I hope will happen.’ Energize that. The anxiety level [then] goes down very, very quickly.”
The interesting thing is that the more your fears come up, the more positive imagery you end up doing, which often ends up having a very positive effect. You can also raise the impact of these visualizations by adding other sensory components, such as using your hands to wipe the fear away, putting your hand out as a stop signal or verbalizing “No!” in addition to visualizing the “no-go” sign followed by your positive outcome.