Worry – what to do if your thoughts just keep going around in circles

I’ve heard it said that people who worry excessively care too much. After all, we only tend to worry about things we care about – our families, our friends, our health, our jobs, our finances etc. As a family carer of a person with dementia, your role is one of ‘caring’. Therefore, you may be more susceptible to excessive worry than most people. But can worry ever be helpful? Or is it always a destructive force that causes our emotional well-being to suffer? A little bit of worrying is natural and just a part of normal life. The purpose of a bit of worrying is that it can help us to anticipate and prepare for potential obstacles. If your worrying enables you to plan a strategy for overcoming potential hurdles ahead, it is called ‘productive worry’.

However, for many, worry isn’t productive and instead becomes ‘ever decreasing circles’ of rumination, where we go over and over the same things in our head. This can end up leaving us feeling hopeless and trapped in despair. One interpretation of the phrase ‘ever decreasing circles’ is that it refers to a flock of ducks, swimming in circles on a lake that is freezing over. They keep swimming in circles to try to keep the water moving to prevent it from freezing completely. As the lake freezes, the circles the ducks are swimming in get smaller and smaller, until eventually they are trapped. I think this is a good metaphor for how excessive worrying can cause us to feel hemmed in by our circumstances, to the point where we are paralysed into inaction. Focusing on obstacles, ruminating and obsessing about all the catastrophes that might occur is definitely not helpful, and extremely overwhelming.

If worrying is a bit of a problem for you, one way to help yourself is to think of an event that is coming up, then think of 3 steps to manage this. When you’ve done that think of 3 potential obstacles that might get in the way. Rather than stop there, then plan 3 strategies to overcome these obstacles. This is productive worry and it’s a whole lot better!
As a carer of someone with dementia, life is not predictable and change is frequent. Lots of things are outside of your control. I love the Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It sounds so simple in theory, but sometimes our relationship with what happens in life, and particularly change, is complicated.

Sometimes we instigate change. Perhaps we see a need for something different to happen; we think it through and we drive it forward. That can take a lot of courage, but if we believe in the reasons for making the change, and we have thought through a plan, this can feel positive. But dementia is a change that is imposed on us. That’s a whole other story. This change is something we would never have chosen. Maybe this change causes us pain. This is where it gets tough. This is where wisdom comes in to play. We have a choice about how we respond. To use our energy to resist and ruminate on our dissatisfaction; or to move towards acceptance. This isn’t passive. It’s a choice to embrace serenity.

My role as Clinical Psychology Lead at Dementia Carers Count often involves me helping people to manage loss and the inevitable change that comes with it. I see people who are facing a future they didn’t choose. If it’s impossible for things to carry on as they were before, then you need to carry on in a way you never have before. This takes courage. Discovering a ‘new normal’ is a huge challenge but can lead to tremendous personal growth. If we are able to do this, a form of serenity can come. As a family carer of a person living with dementia, I know it can be really tough. There’s a phrase I love: we can’t stop the waves, but we can learn to surf. Learning to surf, on the waves of adversity, rather than going round in ever decreasing circles is a better way forward.

Dr Gemima Fitzgerald
Clinical Psychology Lead