FFHQ Teen Psychology Expert and Managing Director of Motus Learning, Christopher Shum reveals what worry is and how you can deal with it.
We worry every day. We wake up and worry about what we are going to have for breakfast. We worry about if we are going to make it to work on time. We worry if people will like what we are wearing. The list goes on.
Then we get home after work to relax, and we go to bed and worry about the next day. A tiresome cycle that never ends. And this is fine. We need to worry. It is our brain preparing us for the future.
However, it is when you fall into a constant state of worry that you develop the dysfunctional disposition of anxiety. Then, the quantity and intensity of these worries belligerently take over our minds and we’re in a constant battle with a persistent monster that exhausts us until it takes over.
This can happen to your children, too. Your child avoids school because of fears about exams, they avoid social events in fear that they say something stupid, and they can’t leave the house because they have absolutely no control over anything in the real world. And then you tell them not to worry. ‘Good idea, I never thought of that’ they remark sarcastically.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone” Blaise Pascal
A society of mindlessness
Do me a favour and for the next five seconds, don’t think about a white polar bear.
If you’re not thinking about a white polar bear, then you’re either a superhero or a liar because we do not have complete control over what we pay attention to. As soon as we’re born, we take in hundreds of colours, sounds, and smells a minute. Then, we grow up forcing ourselves to multi-task in order to get the upper hand on those around us.
We scroll through social media homepages to keep up to date with the latest news while swallowing our dinner without tasting it and aimlessly watching television.
One of the very detrimental reasons we spend so much time on our phones is that there is so much happening on social media that it is the only stimulus that can occupy our attention. Otherwise, we get ‘bored’.
Whether it’s absorbing the bright lights of Times Square or flicking through Instagram stories, we are unconsciously training our brains to need overstimulation and as a result, the majority of our society has completely lost the ability to focus on one thing. There is so much going on that we are constantly living in an imagined future state. Mindlessness.
The results of mindlessness
And what’s the result of this mindlessness? Well, of course, utter panic due to severe boredom when people are asked to stay at home for a few weeks. Outside of coronavirus panic, it also causes us to be unable to complete that assignment or task that has been put off due to procrastination.
Tasks are slowed down due to our need to have one look at our Instagram. But that’s fine because we’re good at multitasking, isn’t it? It also impacts our relationships as we find it very difficult to listen. I’m sure we can all refer to a time when our friend has been talking to us and we were thinking about something completely different.
As you prepare to go to sleep, you tell yourself there’s not enough time in the day but a study by RescueTime found that on average, people spend three hours and 15 minutes a day on their phone. That’s 35 days a year looking at memes and people you don’t really care about. It turns out multitasking isn’t as helpful as we thought!
Mindlessness and worry
Remember when you were a child? You didn’t have a worry in the world. The reason being that your mind was so occupied with learning about the novelty of the world that you didn’t have time to worry. You automatically lived in the present so there was no time for the future. And then along came the development of your prefrontal cortex. The complexity of the prefrontal cortex is amazing and it has given humans the ability to imagine (the only animals in the world that can do so).
While this imagination has resulted in some of the most important creations in society today, we are now using it for the wrong reason. We are imagining problems and living in the future in order to feed the overstimulation of our brains and this is resulting in us wasting time, losing the ability to listen, and higher levels of worry. If we live in a future that we cannot predict, the only result is worry.
From personal experience, we have unfortunately seen the rise of worry among children and adolescents. The majority of children today are terrified about the transition into secondary school and exams. These children are 11.
In the UK, we have had plenty of schools interested in our program but it could not get the go-ahead because the school needed to concentrate on end of year exams. Again - these children are 11.
We are placing children in our worried and stressed adult environments and this is leading to the anxiety that adults experience seeping into childhood, and children are now worrying more than ever. The statistics show the same evidence. 13.3% of adolescents aged 16 – 18 have experienced anxiety and it is estimated that there are at least 40,000 children suffer from anxiety today.
So how do we stop this? Well firstly, stop projecting your worry about your child onto them. Let them grow and learn by truly experiencing what is in front of them rather than your imagined world a year down the line. Then, allow your child to understand their worry and why it is important. And finally, give them a way to have control over their worry. This at Motus, is one of our biggest secret weapons. Take notice:
One huge failure of society is its inability to remove the association between the scientific benefits of meditation and a hippy sitting up with their legs crossed, fingers placed in the "ok" symbol while humming a mantra. We are yet to attend a school where the general consensus of what meditation is wasn't exactly that.
However, researchers such as Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn, Dr. Stephen McKenzie and Dr. Craig Hassed have completely transformed the scientific perspective of meditation.
With advancements in our ability to view the brain in different states, research has become more accurate in seeing the effects of meditation on the brain. EEG, fMRI and ERP neuroimagery studies all show the same thing. A brain that is in a meditative state has a positive transformation of blood flow.
A study by Kabat Zinn found that mindfulness increased rate of antibodies, meaning that it also benefits our immune system and finally, mindfulness meditation has been found to be a strong intervention for teens with behavioural problems. There are also hundreds of other papers showing similar results and applicability. Consequently, I no longer see meditation as hippy propaganda. It is a science-based practice and this is why it’s a secret weapon. It's not yet understood why it’s so effective.
Why Mindfulness Works
It turns out that because our minds are constantly so active and focused on hundreds of things and thoughts at one time, we need to train our minds to attend to one thing, just like we train any muscle in the gym.
So, imagine that we have a muscle in our brain (the fancy scientific term would be cognitive control) and at the moment, it's extremely weak. Remember our inability to not think about the white polar bear? That’s how weak it is.
But as you practice something as simple as focusing on your breath for two minutes for a few weeks, your consistency builds up your attention to be able to focus for longer periods. Therefore, when we meditate, we build up that muscle and then it becomes strong. When the muscle is strong, it is more aware of when we're worrying about the future and it is able to bring us back to the present.
And this doesn't mean sitting cross-legged and humming a mantra (unless you want to, of course!). Just lying down and focusing on your senses is meditation. But be careful. Meditation is not just sitting in silence because in that case, you are not focusing your attention on anything. At first, you may need someone or something to direct your attention and that is why the apps such as 'headspace' or ‘Calm' have been so successful.
Another misconception is that meditation is about clearing your mind and thinking about nothing. It is in fact, the opposite. The practise of meditation is getting distracted by thoughts or the outside world but showing awareness of this distraction (which we would not generally notice) and being able to bring your focus back to whatever meditation you are doing.
That is what in fact, builds up the muscle. The more you can do this, the better you get. The better you get, the better you can take notice. So forevermore, please be aware that meditation is not just to relax. It’s to train our brain to focus on one thing.
The alternative to mindfulness
We highly recommend that everybody tries it but we do admit that it won't work for everyone. So alternatively, our advice is to just stop multitasking. Stop eating dinner while being on your phone while watching Netflix. If you spur your brain to do all of this, then you won’t appreciate any of it. Society fed us false advice that multitasking is essential because it allows us to work faster. However, we are not robots - it's better to do one thing well than three things below average.
So what else can improve our ability to attend? At concerts, there are now more phones than people interested in the music act. Again, we think about the future act of positive social evaluation because people saw you were at a concert rather than actually enjoying the music in the present.
You stand in front of the breathtaking view of the Grand Canyon but you need to get a selfie first because if there’s no picture, then you were never there. And finally, and undoubtedly most frustrating is when you meet up with friends at the pub and someone spends all of their time glued to their phone. If you can't identify who it is in your friend group, then it's probably you. Mindlessness.
Because it is worry that feeds the social media movement. People are worried that other people will think that they’re not happy. But if you base your happiness on other peoples’ opinion, then you are not in control of your happiness. By taking control of your attention, your quality of work increases, procrastination reduces, and you begin appreciating the mundane far more. As Patrick Kavanagh said, you learn how to wallow in the habitual.
Preventing over-worry vs curing anxiety
Please note that this is not a fix to panic attacks nor is it going to remove obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. Like everything we do, this is a preventative measure.
“We take care of the future best by taking care of the present now”
Jon Kabat Zinn
We never ignore emotions. We need to be aware of our worries and then counteract them as often as possible. Remember, we can’t control worry happening but we can control how long it lasts. And worry is not a bad thing. It is our brain telling us that we need to be prepared for something.
So I’m not some hippy telling you to live in the moment. I’m an academic telling you that you need to train your brain’s ability to attend to one thing. Combine this with cognitive behavioural therapy and you have an arson of tools to fight against anything anxiety-provoking, from the social isolation of coronavirus to the uncertainty of social interactions. And if you can do that, for yourself and for your child, then we will have the ability to focus on one thing. The beauty of the present.