6 min read

Kathryn Tristan, author “Why Worry? Stop Coping and Start Living,” (release date 12-4-12). Author and research scientist on the faculty of Washington University School of Medicine. 

1. You talk about writing your book “from the trenches.”What was your own experience with worry and anxiety that inspired you to write this book?

Our experiences as children seed our understanding of the world, how we think of ourselves and what we feel we are capable of. They also hardwire our brains for how we think and react in the future. My brain was hardwired for worry and anxiety as a response to stress. I didn’t recognize that until adulthood. As a youngster, I had a happy family life with four other siblings, many friends, and fun activities. But I also had a highly sensitive personality that worried constantly and couldn’t quite grasp why there was such havoc at home. An out-of-control alcoholic father is something I can better understand today … and forgive.

Years later, when stresses mounted in college, as a young mother, and later as a wife whose own marriage became rocky, I began to experience high anxiety and panic attacks. Each new occurrence further restricted my life and eventually I could not leave my home town for more than 20 years. With few tools to deal with these turbulent, upsetting feelings I was left on my own. The good news is that my fears and worries became my best teachers. I ultimately realized that worry is a choice. I could choose to accept it or not. I was able to dig myself out of the trenches of worry and anxiety. By challenging the internal voice of fear and rewiring my brain with better responses, I ultimately fly to Greece for an international scientific meeting where I spoke before hundreds of esteemed scientists and did so calmly, confidently, and gratefully. I have a deeply personal connection to this subject and I am coupling my background as a scientist and writer to spread the word that we already have all the tools we need for healing in place. We just have to dig them out. In Why Worry? I summarized these tools, new helpful scientific studies, and the inspiring story of others who also overcame their own challenges.

2. Do you think Americans worry more today than in past generations?

It is a sad fact that 1 in 2 Americans will at some time in their life suffer from anxiety, depression, or addiction. What does this say about how well we are dealing with our modern world? I think this indicates we need some new ways of dealing with our stresses, worries and challenges.

Do we worry more today? Yes, absolutely. More than 44% of Americans say their stresses and worries have increased in the last 5 years. Worry comes from how we handle our reaction to stresses and challenges. Past generations also have dealt with many stresses involving family, health, economics, and war. What differentiates us today is that the heartbeat of our world has become much ‘faster.’ We are connected instantly and globally. Although this can be thrilling, fun, and informative, our minds become saturated from so much input. How many email and social media accounts do you keep up with? New studies suggest the average American sends or receives ~ 400 texts per month. For teens, that number skyrockets to ~ 3700. The fast and furious pace of the world is a dual edged sword that on the one hand presents exciting new opportunities to interact, but also the burdens with increasingly more stress and worry.

Personally, I love how we can now connect in so many ways. Rather than disparaging our modern day world, what we simply need are new ways of dealing with stresses and challenges. Everything comes at a price. Worry and stress do not have to be our new reality if we learn better mental skills. That’s what I hope to accomplish with my book.

3. You talk about rewiring “circuits blown by fear” to experience permanent relief from anxiety. How is this different from other approaches used to combat worry?

Any modality that ‘works permanently’ does so because it helps you rewire your brain to create improved responses. Part of the concern about a pill-centered approach to healing is whether that helps rewire your brain or merely provide a short-term fix. Some scientists believe it may actually slow down the rewiring process. Another problem is that many of the meds have side effects that can be quite upsetting, such as increased anxiety or even panic attacks. Further, some medications simply do not work at all. It is estimated that only 1 in 3 anti-depressants are effective and it takes months to find out if they work at all. This is not to say that medications do not help. It is just not a substitute for the mental tools needed for healing.

Ultimately, we are compelled to deal with ourselves and develop new ways of thinking and reacting to our stresses and worries. You can’t pill that. But coupled with more therapeutic mind-body-spirit centered strategies, you can rewire worn out, frazzled, or simply inappropriate responses. But it takes commitment and persistence.

4. Can you touch on the four core concepts you cover in your book?

I discovered four key principles that govern recovery from anxiety and worry. I call these CORE concepts because they work from the inside out. They draw on inner resources, tug them back to the surface of the conscious mind, and create the foundation for recovery. The word is an acronym for the four principles.

The C in CORE stands for Choice. This is one of the most powerful truths I learned... Worry is a Choice. It often seems that we are victims not choosers. But this is just not true. Awareness and Choice are our two most powerful tools for recovery. By better understanding how your mind is working and what it is saying, you can choose to accept or veto the thought. Think of your mind as a conveyor belt in which you choose what to remove from it. The O stands for Outlook. How we think about anything determines how we experience everything. You can change how you perceive, process, and react to any situation. This places you directly at the steering wheel of your life. The question is whether you will stay in “park” or get moving.

That’s why the next CORE concept, R, stands for Risk. We worriers don’t embrace the idea of doing anything risky that might amplify feelings of anxiety. The paradox is that once you begin to take small steps out of your comfort zone, you empower yourself with a new source of strength, confidence, and joy you never expected. By taking measured risks and building on each (including forgiving yourself if you take some tumbles), the joy felt by doing something new far outweighs any initial discomfort.

Finally, the E stands for Embracing Your Spirit.  By cultivating the highest part of yourself (the aspect that loves life, gives direction through feelings, and perceives meaning beyond the five senses), you find a self-perpetuating inner power that sustains you no matter what happens in the future.

5. You offer a resource list of additional kinds of therapy in your book. What are your feelings on medication and talk therapy to treat worry and anxiety?

There is no one size fits all for overcoming worry and anxiety. There are a number of traditional and nontraditional approaches people can pursue. I found traditional types of therapy helped give me additional tools, but did not help me permanently heal. However, some people derive great benefit especially from treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy as well as medications. As I indicated earlier, medication can be problematic because they often have side effects and it takes months to see if they work at all. For me, the journey accelerated only when I integrated tools of the mind, body, and spirit.  I encourage everyone to seek the best fit they can. Start somewhere. Keep moving forward. Remember, your thoughts create your life, choose wisely!

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