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Cluster Two: Tension, Stress, and Dread

Many clients with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) experience high levels of tension that are physically uncomfortable and compel them to search frantically for the reasons behind their anxiety. They hope they can "solve" whatever problem seems to be causing anxiety and thus relieve its symptoms. But since much of their heightened tension isn't about a real problem, they simply waste time running around their inner maze of self-perpetuating worry. And even if their tension does stem from psychological or neurobiological causes, there are ways to eliminate the symptoms of chronic worry before addressing those dimensions. The following methods are most helpful for diminishing chronic tension.

Method 4: Don't Listen When Worry Calls Your Name.

Colleen feared I'd  think she was crazy when she said, "It's as if my anxiety has a voice. It calls to me, 'Worry now,' even when there's nothing on my mind. Then I have to go looking for what's wrong." And she was very good at finding something wrong to worry about. An executive who had a lot of irons in the fire, she had no shortage of projects that needed her supervision. On any day, she could worry about whether a report had been correct, or projected figures were accurate, or a contract would generate income for her firm. In describing the voice of worry, she was describing that physical, pit-of-the-stomach sense of doom that comes on for no reason, and then compels an explanation for why it's there. This feeling of dread and tension, experienced by most GAD clients, actually comprises a state of low-grade fear, which can also cause other physical symptoms, like headache, temporo-mandibular joint (TMJ) pain, and ulcers.

Few realize that the feeling of dread is just the emotional manifestation of physical tension. This "Don't Listen" method decreases this tension by combining a decision to ignore the voice of worry with a cue for the relaxation state. Early in treatment, GAD clients learn progressive muscle relaxation to get relief. I always teach them how to cue up relaxation several times throughout the day by drawing a breath and remembering how they feel at the end of the relaxation exercise. We usually pair that deeply relaxed state with a color, image, and word to strengthen associations with muscle relaxation and make it easier to cue the sensation at will.

We then use that ability to relax to counteract the voice of worry. Clients must first learn that worry is a habit with a neurobiological underpinning. Even when a person isn't particularly worried about anything, an anxiety-prone brain can create a sense of doom, which then causes hypervigilance as the person tries to figure out what's wrong. Colleen smiled with recognition when I said that, when she was in this state, it was as though her brain had gone into radar mode, scanning her horizons for problems to defend against. I asked her to pay attention to the order of events, and she quickly recognized that the dread occurred before she consciously had a worry. "But," she announced, "I always find something that could be causing the doom, so I guess I had a good reason to worry without realizing it."

She believed the doom/dread must have a legitimate cause, and was relieved to learn that her need to find the cause (when there really wasn't one) stemmed from a brain function. This cause-seeking part of her brain, triggered by changes in her physiology that made her feel dread, in effect, called out, "Worry now!"

To stop listening to that command to worry, I suggested that she say to herself, "It's just my anxious brain firing wrong." This would be the cue for her to begin relaxation breathing, which would stop the physical sensations of dread that trigger the radar.

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