“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”- Mark Twain
Worry is the silent killer of life’s enthusiasm, energy, and promise. Many of us spend a great deal of time, needlessly in our own heads, worrying about things that usually never happen. Granted, sometimes they do happen, but almost never in the manner or severity that we imagined. Worrying is something that humans do instinctively, a hardwired mental activity that we believe prepares us for some anticipated disaster. It is a part of our evolutionary development that was more beneficial when we had to worry about running out of food, abrupt changes in the seasons, and occasionally being slaughtered by predatory beasts. While it can still serve a purpose, it is usually a time waster, an energy suck, and it has the potential to lead to physical and emotional illnesses. To maintain physical and mental wellness, modern man must learn to harness this basic human instinct.
The difference between anxiety and worry is that worry is about anticipating some way to handle a future event that has not yet happened. Worry is specific, anxiety tends to be more general. Worry frequently becomes anxiety, as the specific event we are worried about takes upon a life of its own and generates physical symptoms resulting in a storm of emotions, creating a feeling of powerlessness and loss of control. These physical symptoms are interpreted in an “impending doom” kind of way and many other areas of functioning become impaired.
Humans, being tribal animals, often share these worries with significant others, family, and friends. The typical advice we receive is “Don’t worry about it.” Brilliant isn’t it? When worrying gets to be too overwhelming, a person can break down physically, losing sleep, overreacting to every day routine events, and suffer impaired levels of functioning in multiple areas of their life. Ironically, worry tends to impede a person’s ability to deal with the very thing that they were worried about in the first place. Occasionally, people will seek out professional advice in the form of primary care physicians, financial advisors, and even coaches and counselors. Quite often counseling involves trying to find ways to stop the worry from occurring. Unfortunately, this usually fails and a person believes that counseling doesn’t work and develops an “I tried that and it didn’t work” attitude towards the whole process.
Worry does serve a purpose. It prepares us for what might happen and helps us to imagine contingencies for how we will deal with the difficult events if and when they happen. When it is simply an exercise in catastrophizing, or is not accompanied by an action plan of how to cope, it is a complete and utter waste of time, physical, mental, and emotional energy. “Don’t worry” is a great idea, but virtually impossible for most thoughtful people to accomplish. We have to learn to work within the parameters of our natural inclination to worry as a way of planning for the future.
The reality is that humans are programmed to worry. To cope with this, acceptance in working with this tendency must be considered. Remember, the purpose that worrying serves is to prepare us for events that we fear might happen. Learning to “worry well” is the challenge. Worrying well is a skill that, like most behavioral skills, can be learned with a little patience and diligent practice. Here are some steps to take to become one who worries well:
1. Set aside a “worry period” each day. It should be a specific time of day and have a specific duration. For example, every day after work sit down and worry for 15 minutes. After that 15 minutes go about the rest of your evening, but you are not allowed to go back to the troublesome thoughts of that 15 minute worry period. It’s very subtle, but what you are doing is learning to confine, thereby gaining some measure of control over your worry.
2. Identify your worry. What specifically are you afraid might happen in the future? Some are afraid to even think about what their fears are here. The belief here is “if I don’t consider it it won’t happen.” This usually doesn’t work and the event of concern takes upon a life of its own.
3. Delay your worry. As you go about your day and find yourself beginning to worry, take note of your concern and, if necessary, write it down. In that moment remind yourself, “No need to think about this now, I’ll deal with it later.” Again, what you are doing is learning to confine control your natural inclination to worry.
4. Do not allow the worry to consume you at any other time during your day except for your worry period. Focus your attention mindfully on the tasks of your day. Get engrossed and involved in the routine and events of the moment to postpone worrying until the appropriate time. Remember, you’ll deal with it later, but you will deal with it. If this is difficult to do, have a set of strategies that you can fall back on to delay your worrying. Things like, going for a brief walk, calling a friend, checking your emails, doing some deep breathing – anything that refocuses your mind on something other than the disturbing thoughts. A strategy that I have been suggesting to my clients that many like is to think of their worries as a program on a computer that is their mind. When the disturbing thoughts pop up, they click an imaginary button minimizing that program. The program continues to run in the background, but they don’t pay attention to it. During their worry period, they will open that file and attend to it then. This visualization seems to resonate with a lot of people, allowing them to function in the present moment.
5. Eliminate a worry when you no longer feel it bothers you. As you gradually delete worries, you’ll find that the worry period is a great time to brainstorm some practical solutions to what has been bothering you. As you come up with potential answers, you’ll find a decrease in tension and improved confidence in what you can control. Some worries will remain, but to a lesser degree of intensity.
Whether or not to worry is, ultimately, a choice. If you are a natural worrier, then try these strategies and notice the positive benefits of worrying well. Don’t let worry rule your emotions. While worry can never be completely eradicated, learning to worry well while continuing to function at an optimal level will give you the ability to live your life with less tension.
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There is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness it is in your expecting evil before it arrives! – Seneca
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