'Stop Worrying', by Dr. Ad Kerkhof, provides a set of practical exercises designed to make you aware of your worries so that you can begin to tackle them and replace them with something more fulfilling. The author understands the mind of the worrier, and guides him/her though the exercises with patience and persistence. In the introductory section, Kerkhof considers the meaning of the word 'worry' and chooses the French torturer l'esprit 'torturing of the mind' as best typifying the state of mind of the worrier. Whereas thinking leads to action, worrying is a form of 'self-torture' which leads nowhere. But Kerkhof assures us that we can use our own strength and imagination to break the habit of worrying and begin working toward living a more purposeful life. Most importantly, he reminds us that we are not alone and encourages us to confide in others: 'Don't forget to tell those close to you about your efforts to worry less. They will be happy to support you.'
For those readers who avoid seeking help, I would add that 'Stop Worrying' was the first self-help book that I have ever worked through seriously. I have avoided such books. I never needed them. But that changed. A series of personal losses, most especially the death of my spouse, gave rise to some new and intense anxieties in the years that followed. In addition to loneliness and grief, I worried excessively about my ability to work competently again. I worried about not being good enough. I worried about a past I could not change and a future that I feared. I worried about worrying and about everyone knowing that I was worrying.
Thankfully, 'Stop Worrying' does not preach optimism or offer a quick fix. The goals are realistic, and they are presented with the wisdom of an experienced therapist: 'If through using this book you aim to halve the time spent worrying then this is a realistic objective. Who knows, you may reduce it by more than half which would then be a bonus.' You do not have to stop worrying entirely to reap benefits; the time invested in making even small changes is time well spent. The author helps you to identify anxieties, question them and find alternative ways of thinking. Gradually, you can begin to imagine 'not just what could go wrong but what could also go right.'
'Stop Worrying' is concise and clearly organized. It has the structure of a small workbook set out in 4-week chapters, each with daily charts for mapping worries and practical exercises for managing them. The exercises are direct, simple and can be completed even in the worry-filled day of the worrier. Taking time to do the exercises (15 minutes twice a day), practice and perseverance are required, but the step-by-step, day-by-day guide lightens the task. Many exercises focus on identifying the nature and intensity of your worries. A few key questions are repeated each day, i.e. what made you worry (work/ study, finances, family). You simply check off an answer, and the multiple choice format focuses the mind. A space is set aside for jotting down key worries. Within days patterns begin to emerge, and your worries become glaringly clear. You can then question their logic and learn how to replace them with something else. That is the approach and goal of the book.
So what do you replace your worries with? In each section simple exercises are introduced. You are encouraged to learn them all, but also to discover those exercises that work best for you. One early and effective exercise is to seek a 'distraction', i.e. to go cycling or walking. Many such exercises also aim at breaking the isolation of the worrier; you are encouraged to seek contact with others. There are techniques for turning self-imposed obligations (i.e. 'I have to') into positive desires and goals. A number of writing exercises focus attention on excessive worries about the future. These help you to face your fears, but they also awaken the imagination so that you can envision a possible future. Some exercises require a bit of humour, and Dr. Kerkhof encourages you to let the mind play as it tackles its worries.
In the final section of the book (for `Advanced Worriers'), Dr. Kerkhof speaks more directly to the persistent worrier. He challenges the logic of common worries and proposes alternative ways of thinking. There is a forthright discussion of the serious consequences of excessive anxiety, including depression and suicidal thoughts. Those who are unable to reduce worrying, or who are coping with multiple difficulties, are advised to seek the help of a psychologist, psychotherapist or psychiatrist.
I still worry, but I have learned to worry less. The exercises 'Stop Worrying', along with the support of a trusted therapist in whom I could confide, have helped me to discover my own ability to manage my worries and work toward a more purposeful and joyful life.