Managing Guilt and Worry

Anxiety is a common condition, affecting over 2 million people in Australia, with 1 in 3 women, and 1 in 5 men experiencing anxiety at some stage in their lives.  We all experience some stress and anxious feelings when under pressure of exams, work deadlines or time commitments, however these feelings usually pass when the stressor is removed.  For those who struggle with anxiety, these feeling do not subside, and the symptoms of anxiety can have a crippling effect on their lives.  A number of symptoms may surface including –

·         Obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviour

·         Tightening of the chest

·         Racing heart rate

·         Hot and cold flushes

·         Difficulty breathing

·         Constant worrying

·         Muscle tension

·         Insomnia

·         Avoidance of social situations

There are a variety of contributing factors that may lead to a person developing anxiety including ongoing stressful circumstances, physical conditions such as an overactive thyroid, nutrient deficiency, unhealthy lifestyle choices, substance abuse and addictions, past trauma that has not been processed, as well as personality factors such as being a perfectionist or those with low self-esteem.

Some people find ongoing worries are contributing to feeling anxious, where the brain can get caught in a loop and create a living hell. Life cannot always be controlled, and there are times where worry seems warranted, however exploring some of these thought patterns and emotions can help to manage these feelings and help achieve some peace in our daily lives.

Guilt and worry wastes our energy and keeps us locked out of the present moment.  Guilt keeps us stuck in past-based fear, and worry is all about future-based fear, and therefore we are not actually living our lives. 

So, how can we manage these worries and anxiety?

Firstly, acknowledge and identify that you are feeling guilt or worry, and ask yourself the following “Is there anything I can do to make amends, or prepare for the future?”  If there is, set yourself an action plan and do something about it.  Can you apologize for something that has happened in the past?  Even if you cannot speak with that person or situation directly, perhaps you can write down your feelings and acknowledge your perceived part in it.  Exploring forgiveness can be helpful if this is appropriate for your situation.  Remember that what has happened in the past cannot be changed.  We can only change the way we feel about it.  Consider forgiving yourself… Guilt is a heavy burden to carry around.

The only time you are alive is right now.  You can’t change anything in the past – it has already happened.  You can’t control the future, you can only set up a few safeguards for yourself, and deal with whatever happens as it happens.  Recognize that worry is draining your energy and removing you from living in the present moment. If you’re preoccupied with “what ifs” and worst-case scenarios, worry becomes a problem of its own. Unrelenting doubts and fears can be paralyzing. They can sap your emotional energy, send your anxiety levels soaring, and interfere with your daily life.


Distinguish between solvable and unsolvable worries

If a worry pops into your head, start by asking yourself whether the problem is something you can actually solve. The following questions can help:

  • Is the problem something you're currently facing, rather than an imaginary what-if?

  • If the problem is an imaginary what-if, how likely is it to happen? Is your concern realistic?

  • Can you do something about the problem or prepare for it, or is it out of your control?

Accepting uncertainty: The key to anxiety relief

To understand the problems of refusing to accept uncertainty, ask yourself the following 4 questions and write down your responses.

  • Is it possible to be certain about everything in life?

  • What are the advantages of requiring certainty, versus the disadvantages? Or, how is needing certainty in life helpful and unhelpful?

  • Do you tend to predict bad things will happen just because they are uncertain? Is this a reasonable thing to do? What is the likelihood of positive or neutral outcomes?

  • Is it possible to live with the small chance that something negative may happen, given its likelihood is very low?

Stop worrying by questioning the anxious thought

  • What’s the evidence that the thought is true? That it’s not true?

  • Is there a more positive, realistic way of looking at the situation?

  • What’s the probability that what I’m scared of will actually happen? If the probability is low, what are some more likely outcomes?

  • Is the thought helpful? How will worrying about it help me and how will it hurt me?

  • What would I say to a friend who had this worry?

Change “What if…?” worries to “How can I…?” worries:

To be able to manage your worries, you need to understand exactly what they are. Try keeping a worry diary for a week or so. Write down each worry when it occurs – just a sentence to describe it will do. Then later, try and see how many of your worries are “What if…?” type questions. As we mentioned earlier, “What if..?” worries are not helpful. You can try to turn these worries into “How can I…? worries, which is more likely to lead you on to practical solutions (e.g. you could turn a “What if I forget what to say in my interview?” worry into “How can I prepare myself to remember what I need to say in my interview”).

Practicing mindfulness to help reduce worry –

Acknowledge and observe your anxious thoughts and feelings. Don’t try to ignore, fight, or control them like you usually would. Instead, simply observe them as if from an outsider’s perspective, without reacting or judging.

Let your worries go. Notice that when you don’t try to control the anxious thoughts that pop up, they soon pass, like clouds moving across the sky. It’s only when you engage your worries that you get stuck.

Stay focused on the present. Pay attention to the way your body feels, the rhythm of your breathing, your ever-changing emotions, and the thoughts that drift across your mind. If you find yourself getting stuck on a particular thought, bring your attention back to the present moment.

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