“Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.”
– Mary Schmich
I’ve always been a bit of a worrier. My mum tells me I take after her – although she takes it to virtuoso levels. But today, amidst an avalanche of uncertainty and dark clouds on the horizon, I’m pondering worry.
I’m no expert in psychology, but for worrying to be so pervasive and permissive in our society and in our personal lives it’s got to serve a purpose, a function, or provide some benefit to us as individuals.
1. Scenario planning. The first thing that comes to mind is that worrying is basically a form of (emotional) planning. It allows us to consider scenarios, and how we’d react or feel in given situations. One could imagine that this could be of some use, particularly if these were realistic outcomes we were considering, and we would have the clarity of mind to recall our best moves when the situation warranted it
2. Control. Frequently we worry about things which are to some degree out of our control. In worrying we tend to bring it into our personal domain, over-weighting the degree of our influence and control in the situation. This is comforting because if we believe we have a greater degree of control over a situation, we then believe we have a greater degree of influence over the end result/outcome
3. Something to do. Related to the control element (above), worrying gives us something to do. Confronted with a situation where we have a large degree of uncertainty and little control, then worrying is rather like chewing gum, it gives us something to do, keeps us occupied, but otherwise provides no nutritional value
And finally, worry can be learnt behaviour, something we’ve picked up in our formative years from parents, or friends. Or worse from a traumatic upbringing where worrying was a necessary defence.
But there is more to worry than chewing gum.
The dark side.
“Worry is the state of engaging in chains of thoughts and images of a negative and an uncontrollable nature in which mental attempts are made to avoid anticipated potential threats.” Wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worry
As with any trait or activity, any degree of benefit is in part a function of the level of activity (how much we worry), and the appropriateness of it (how much it helps).
Two words stand out for me in the quote above. Negative and uncontrollable. When we worry, it is always negative. Even if we’re considering a positive scenario (getting a new job, having a baby, going on a date) we frequently pick out the risks, the negative consequences and focus on these.
4. What we think is what we experience. One of the problems with overly worrying (at least in our comparatively stable Western society), is that it can colour our view of the world. Our ability to hold two competing and opposite ideas in our minds is generally rather limited and unflexed. So as we become more adept at spotting risks, consequences and the negative, it comes at the cost of seeing the benefits, positive, or more realistic picture of a situation, so our experience becomes more negative
5. What does worrying actually do? For most of us, gone are the days when we need to be on the look out for a lion, i.e. having something to really worry about. But I think the truth is it depends. Some of us through our genes or experience become predisposed to worrying. And for those of us who worry a little too much, where worrying takes over our lives, obviously the benefit is far outweighed by the price we’re paying in terms of our mental and physical well being.
Where now brown cow?
Well. If you’re a worrier, and acknowledge that for you the negatives outweigh the positive, where do you go from here?
Again it depends on you. One size does not fit all. Once we acknowledge that we have an issue, understand where that issue is coming from, what ‘benefit’ we sought from it in the past (and perhaps mistakenly seek from it now), we could look to counter our predisposition to worry with the following:
6. Stopping. Yes as simple as that. It is possible once we’re aware of a behaviour or tendency, to stop or at least drastically reduce our tendency to worry. This takes perseverance and self-control and probably needs some combination of the other options below to work well
7. Talking to friends (or a professional). Talking to good friends is useful, because it takes us out of our heads and can help get perspective. We tend to over personalise and overstate the importance of events or factors which affect us. Talking to good friends can help bring in some realism and a bit of balance. But pick friends who have the courage to tell the truth with empathy and compassion. Not all friends are born equal in this regard
8. Making some space to truly be aware of your feelings. Sort of the opposite of Stopping (point 6). If we give ourselves some space and permission to wallow and worry, and to truly experience these feelings and thoughts without judgement, it can help lesson the emotional pressure. Somehow, through acknowledging and recognising, and not denying our feelings, we take the sting out of the scorpions tail, and gradually it diminishes
9. Work. If this is a temporary thing (like waiting for exam results), keep busy, distract yourself, try not to be alone and in your own thoughts if they are over whelming
10. Worst case scenario. Sometimes it helps to take the fear to it’s conclusion or an extreme. Basically consider the worst-case scenario. By picturing ourselves in that case, and seeing how bad it truly is. Usually, not as bad as we feared
11. Know your enemy. Cognitively evaluate what you’re worrying about. If you’re rather cerebral, try writing down the thing that’s worrying you, breaking it down into constituent parts, name them individually then try to consider each one in turn, looking at how realistic it is, what the benefit is, what the intention is, and maybe even quantify it. Gather more information if you need to. Sometimes we worry more in situations we don’t know enough about. So find out.
12. Having positive flow in your life. Worrying can be more acute if you’re isolated, or there are lots of pressures in your life. Take time for yourself, and make time for friends, family, or any activity which puts something positive in your life. Be gentle and loving to yourself.
PS> If it helps, I wrote this a week ago off the cuff, and worried that it was a bit rubbish, totally unscientific, unresearched, and basically with no real evidence so didn’t post it. But then I thought what the hell, people can draw their own conclusions, this is a personal opinion piece, and you’re free to add insightful comments.