Learn to Worry Well

November 30, 2010  |  brain, problem solving, thinking, worry

 By Emmett Miller, MD

The human brain is a problem-solving device. That’s really what it’s here for. When we perceive a challenge, demand, or an obstacle that stands between us and something we want — whether it’s an ice cream cone or peace and relaxation — the brain is called in, to resolve the matter.
The prefrontal cortex of the brain is the executive part of the brain. When the prefrontal cortex functions well, we choose wise goals to move toward. We ignore distractions; we create a strategy for reaching our goals; we organize ourselves to follow that strategy; and we stay on course. When the prefrontal cortex does not function well, however, we may have a condition known as “attention deficit disorder” or “ADD.”
Here’s how this physiology pertains to worry: When we perceive there’s a problem that we want to overcome, the brain goes to work on the issue. Ideally, we do our problem-solving with the prefrontal cortex: We keep the dilemma in perspective with the rest of our life, and we put the right amount of energy into thinking about the situation. If we have the tools we need to accomplish the problem, we go into action applying those tools.
If we don’t immediately see a solution, however, we may ruminate on the situation. “Ruminate” stems from the word “rumen,” the name for a cow’s extra stomach. Cows spit their food back up and chew their cud. Humans do something similar with our minds: We ruminate. We cycle through the same thoughts repeatedly.
There are effective and ineffective ways to think about things. To this end, it is important to learn how to worry well.
Here’s an example of bad worry: The person next door got a bigger car than the one we have, and it’s all we can think about: That person has a bigger car then me. She shouldn’t have a bigger car than me. Or we see a wrinkle in the corner of our eye and obsess about it. In this case, we’re thinking and thinking and thinking but going nowhere.
Good worry, to the contrary, is where we make a wise decision with the executive part of our brain, then take action. One of our children is doing poorly in school, for example, so we decide to hire a tutor to help our child improve. We then figure out who would be the best tutor for him and go about hiring that individual.
In my practice, I recently saw a seven year old who obsesses about how someday he is going to die, which he doesn’t want to happen. He unproductively worries about this issue all the time.
The difference between good worry and bad worry comes down to the Serenity Prayer concept: Recognize what we do and do not have power over. Then get busy changing what we can.


Dr. Miller is often acknowledged as one of the fathers of Mind/Body Medicine, he is a physician, poet, musician, and master storyteller, whose multicultural heritage has given him a unique social, medical, and spiritual perspective. His commitment to helping us to reclaim our inborn personal wisdom, integrated with the scientific knowledge and techniques of modern medicine, has allowed him to unite seemingly disparate fields of knowledge and experience. For over 30 years, it has been his inspiration and his challenge to help people—individuals, families, and organizations discover this truth for themselves. Millions have been touched by his message of hope, his vision of a brighter future, and his spirit of wellbeing. As a physician, health educator, and a pioneer in a field that is now on the cutting edge of modern medicine, Dr. Miller brings us a deeper understanding of how the mind and body can work in harmony to produce healing, balance and wellness.Dr. Miller, a graduate of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, has been a lecturer and preceptor at Stanford University and The University of California, as well as other universities and medical schools. In 1977, he gained international prominence as a founder and Medical Director of the Cancer Support and Education Center, (Now the Center for Healing and Wellness), and, in 1987, as a co-convener of the groundbreaking California State Task Force on Self-Esteem. A pioneer in the development of mind-body medicine, he is has been widely acclaimed for his invention and development of the first deep relaxation/guided imagery intro audiocassettes. His tapes and CDs are widely used by such medical facilities as Kaiser Permanente, the Mayo Clinic, and by health professionals, business people, performers, and athletes, including members of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team.

Dr. Miller is the author of numerous books, beginning with the seminal Selective Awareness for Self-Healing, in 1973, and including his latest contribution, Deep Healing: The Essence of Mind/Body Medicine. Deep Healing is a bold step forward in the theory, philosophy, and practice of self-healing and peak performance. In the book, Dr. Miller shows clearly how beliefs and images become actual physical events in the body, and includes detailed instructions and training in how you can learn to use images and emotions to change your mind and change your life. His tapes and CDs do more than just talk about how it can be done; they take you by the hand and guide you through the experience of doing it, in a most enjoyable way.

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