Q&A with Martin Rossman, MD, Author of The Worry Solution

Dr Lipman: Most people think of worry as something negative – the behavior that keeps us tossing and turning in our sleep. In your book, however, you distinguish between “bad worry” and “good worry.” Please explain.

Dr Rossman: The act of worry itself is simply a function of our minds: It’s the ability to look at a problem from many different angles, as if through a prism; to identify and tease apart the different pieces of a puzzle; to live simultaneously in the past, present, and future – making informed, intelligent decisions that embody hindsight and foresight. What makes worry positive or negative is the way we use it:

Unproductive worry, or “bad worry,” is obsessive thinking. Let’s say your kid is about to go to college, and you realize you need a raise to make ends meet over the next four years. Instead of taking action, you indulge in catastrophic thoughts about the million things that can go wrong when you approach your boss: You’ll be humiliated. You’ll be demoted. You’ll be fired. You cycle through these possible outcomes, imagining them vividly and repeatedly, all day, every day, without taking any action. Over time, this kind of bad worry triggers anxiety, which in turn triggers the stress behind a slew of health problems — ranging from insomnia to eating disorders to heart disease. That’s scary stuff from our overactive imaginations!

Productive worry, or “good worry,” to the contrary, helps us solve problems and achieve peace of mind. Let’s take the same scenario, with a different outcome: You feel a jolt of terror when you think about asking your boss for a raise. In this case, you put your worry skills to work for you: First, you distinguish between what you can’t control (your boss’s response) and what you can control (the way you ask your boss for the raise). Second, you identify the root cause of your fear: You lack the confidence and skills set necessary to approach your boss effectively.

Third, you identify resources for solving this problem: You’ll read self-books on the art of asking for a raise, and you’ll take a workshop at a local career counseling center. But let’s say you’re the procrastinating type. How will you ensure that you take action? Lastly, you devise ways to hold yourself accountable: You ask a friend to take you to the bookstore, and you ask your brother to join you at the career counseling center workshop.

Dr. Lipman: If you were to lay out this advice in bullet-point format, like a “good worry” action plan, what would it look like?

Dr. Rossman:

  1. Get a clue: Identify the root cause of what’s eating at you.
  2. Get a grip: Acknowledge what is and is not in your power.
  3. Get a plan: Figure out what you need and where you can get it.
  4. Get a move-on: Put your plan into action.

Dr. Lipman: You mentioned that bad worry triggers anxiety, which leads to stress, which leads to illness. It sounds like bad worry is one of the root causes of what I call the Spent Syndrome! Please elaborate how this chain reaction works and what we can do to intercept it.

Dr. Rossman: Bad worry is absolutely a leading culprit of modern-day exhaustion. It sets off a ripple effect that I call “The WASI Train” — Worry-Anxiety-Stress-Illness. Here’s how it works:

The human brain has three essential components — the hindbrain, which focuses on basic survival; the limbic system, which processes emotions; and the cerebral cortex, which interprets events. Each of these components is inextricably intertwined, one affecting the other in a chain reaction that ultimately impacts the entire body. When we worry in the cerebral cortex, we feel anxiety in the limbic system, which translates into stress in the hindbrain and ultimately causes illness in the body.

While we have little direct control over the hindbrain and limbic system, we can step into the driver’s seat of our cerebral cortex — our thinking mind, where worry happens. By consciously shifting our perception and interpretation of events, we dramatically can alter our emotional and biological reactions, rewiring their impact on our bodies. Neuroplasticity research indicates that as we practice these mindful techniques over time, we physically can transform our brain — reprogramming it with thoughts and feelings that support a healthy body. Through mastering a good worry habit, we effectively have the power to think ourselves well – to reduce stress, conserve energy, and ultimately circumvent feeling “Spent” as you call it.

Dr Lipman: Thank you Marty for sharing your wisdom with us.

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