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Pat LaDouceur, Ph.D.Pat LaDouceur, Ph.D.
A Blog about Marriage, Family, Relationships and Psychotherapy

3 Ways to Stop Worry

Pat LaDouceur, Ph.D. Updated: Jun 6th 2013

stressed and worried womanSofia wanted to stop her worry – worry about her job, worry about whether or not her husband will be laid off, worry about the news and the kind of world her kids will grow up in.

She can worry about the past or the future, big things or small – whether she volunteers enough, whether her kids get to school on time, whether her skirt has an unprofessional wrinkle.

Before lunch she can worry about dozens of things, and the day is less than half through.

She's not alone. Many of my clients struggle with worry.

Our brains are designed to notice problems, and solve them before they get out of hand. It's what kept our ancestors alive. It's what helped us, as a species, to survive. Noticing problems and dealing with them quickly is part of our “stress response.”

But with too much worry the stress-response is “on” all the time, and we get exhausted.

Optimal performance

When your brain is working optimally, you feel focused and calm.

When you're anxious, on the other hand, it's as if your thoughts have a life of their own. Worries are everywhere, and as soon as you try to solve one, another pops up.

Imagine trying to conduct an orchestra when the musicians can't agree on which piece they're playing.

Anxiety is like that. Because different parts of the brain aren't working together at an optimal level, the brain ends up working inefficiently and you feel anxious or worried.

The wrong way to deal with worry

Constant worry is hard to live with. Most people try to deal with it in a couple of ways: by avoiding the things they worry about, or by distracting themselves.

At first glance these strategies seem reasonable enough. But in the long run they don't really work.

For example, Sofia had been avoiding a difficult conversation with her husband because she worried that he'd be upset. But this didn't make the conversation, which had to happen eventually, any easier. Meanwhile she worried.

She distracted herself by staying busy. But in the end she took on too much, and then worried about how she was going to get it all done.

There is nothing wrong with choosing a good time to have a conversation, or taking on a worthy project. But when avoidance and distraction are used regularly as a way to combat worry, they have the opposite effect. They're short term strategies, and when short term strategies are used over the long run, they make worry worse.

Sofia and I worked to change her pattern of avoidance and distraction by targeting the worry itself.

Three ways to conduct an orchestra

Wouldn't it be fun to conduct an orchestra that was focused and energized? Wouldn't it be great of the musicians would cooperate, play the same song and work to their best ability?

  • Sometimes a gentle nudge is all it takes to get a wayward musician playing well again. Simple strategies can be calming to your brain. For example, a few slow, even breaths every hour, or meditating for 5 minutes a day might be enough to encourage the musicians and soothe the worry. Daily practice for a few weeks or months makes these simple techniques more effective and reliable.
  • At other times, coordinating the orchestra requires more firmness. Managing worry requires a coordinated plan that addresses the physical, mental, emotional, and relational aspects of worry. As Sofia and I worked together, the support she got from counseling helped her to combine a variety of strategies and integrate them into a busy life.
  • For some people the entire orchestra is out of tune. While it still helps to take a few deep breaths and address the negative thoughts that feed worry, progress can be slow. This is where neurofeedback can help. Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that measures brainwave activity (EEG). It can help quiet a brain caught up in worry and calm the tension in the pit of the stomach. Neurofeedback helps change the way the brain controls the stress response.

With neurofeedback, you learn a skill as you coach the musicians back to harmony. When the violas are a bit flat or the horns too loud, you learn how to get them working together again to create satisfying and sometimes beautiful music. The brain learns to regulate itself. The not so obvious approach

Sofia had to give up her familiar short-term strategies of distraction and avoidance, and develop an approach worry that was deeper and long-lasting. She chose a few 5-minute strategies that she could use anytime, anywhere. Then with counseling and neurofeedback, Sofia was able to quiet her mental chatter and develop sense of well-being that she could draw upon when needed.

As she learned to conduct more effectively, Sofia found that she was moving through the world in a more peaceful way.

If you struggle with worry, a calmer, more relaxed approach might be just a few minutes away.

Simple strategies really do work. Five minutes a day, practiced over weeks or months, can have a profound effect.

Lasting change and more serious worries might take longer. If you want to change worry patterns on a deeper level, let's talk about how counseling or neurofeedback might help. For a link to the current research on neurofeedback and anxiety, click here.

When your brain is working optimally, you feel focused and calm. Whether your “inner orchestra” needs a simple nudge or some serious retraining, you can learn to quiet worry. When the musicians are coordinated and everyone is doing their part, the music is fabulous.


Pat LaDouceur, Ph.D.

Pat LaDouceur, PhD, is author of the forthcoming book, The Remarkable Power of Small Choices: Simple Actions that Shape Your Life. She is a licensed psychotherapist (CA24003), Board Certified Neurofeedback practitioner, author, speaker, and former Director of Operations at a nonprofit agency. For almost three decades, Pat has taught staff, students, and her private clients to be more confident, focused and connected at work and in meaningful relationships. She has a private practice in Berkeley, CA. Subscribe to Anxiety-Free News get a copy of her e-book, "25 Ways to Reduce Anxiety in 5 Minutes or Less" at

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Avoidance and Distraction - Janet Singer - Jun 15th 2013

Trying to avoid situations that cause anxiety, as well as trying to distract themselves from negative thoughts, are two ways those with obsessive-compulsive disorder also attempt to control their OCD. As you say, it doesn't work. Anxiety needs to be faced, and Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy will help them do that. OCD and other anxiety disorders are treatable! Thanks for this post.

Yoga for calming the orchestra - steve wise - Jun 9th 2013

having suffered occasional bad panic attacks over the years, I have finally realised that the problem is that I have proprely controlled low levels of worry and anxiety in my daily life - and that this means that occasionally worry overwhelms me and I suffer a crisis. Personally I have found that yoga is a very way of learning how to stay calm and in control for more of the time. The key for me has been the techniques of breath control which yoga teaches - these are effective at calming both body and mind. Regular practice is beneficial in itself - but the great thing is that you can use the techniques almost anywhere - a few deep breaths become a few rounds of soothing pranayama which can help calm you down as soon as you feel things getting out of control

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