Worrying, along with depression, anger, sex and substance abuse, and stress-related illness are some of our favorite, but oftentimes least helpful ways of coping with life’s challenges.
“If I didn’t worry, the bad thing I am worrying about would certainly happen.”
This is what we might call, ‘preventative worrying’, like brushing our teeth to keep cavities away.
Of course, worrying about cavities doesn’t decrease the likelihood of cavities as well as brushing our teeth does. But worry can serve a function. It can get us to act. Can we take action, and then let go of the worry? Can we brush our teeth, and then forget about the cavities?
For many of us, it seems not. And there are reasons why.
When we worry that X has happened, it makes the reality of X more certain to us and we can prepare for the worst. This gets rid of the uncertainty and gives us a sense of control. For some of us, it’s the uncertainty that’s unbearable.
My husband is late. He hasn’t called. He has probably gotten into an accident. I better call the highway patrol, and then the hospital. This can be less distressing than sitting with the uncertainty of not knowing why he is late.
Just knowing this can be helpful.
We are all biologically prone to worrying. We are hard-wired to register negative or dangerous signals over positive ones. It’s adaptive from an evolutionary perspective. Worrying helps keep you alive in the jungle, where missing a danger signal can put a quick end to all your afternoons.
We had a cat once, named Alex the Black, sweet as could be, a real lover, always available for petting and making friends. Unfortunately, Alex was a bit too friendly, a bit too relaxed. He lived four months before the coyotes got him.
Turtle, our next cat, is as skittish and skeptical as a cat could be. Not much fun, in some ways, but she’s alive after 14 years. She’s lived long enough to mellow out a bit, but she’s as wily as any coyote.
So, don’t knock yourself if like Turtle you’re the worrying type. Worrying was invented way before you showed up.
Your worry is real. Accept it. With the energy freed up from fighting with your worry, you can pay attention to it. Oftentimes, excess worry comes from older brain regions like the amygdala, and though the amygdala is usually not impressed by a good argument, it can be soothed by watching your breathing, and how you are tightening your muscles, or clenching your teeth, or biting your nails.
You don’t have to change anything, just pay attention, and keep breathing. It’s a form of meditation or mindfulness that allows your emotional and reptilian brain centers to calm themselves.
Now, after accepting your worry and watching your body, you can look at what you are worried about. Are those real coyotes out there, or imaginary ones? Remember, the fear and the worry are real, but the coyotes may not be. Is what you are worried about a ‘real’ probability? Of course it’s ‘possible’ that your partner was abducted by aliens, but is it probable?
Keep breathing. No one is trying to take your worry away from you. Pay attention to your body, and your thoughts.
Pay attention especially to those thoughts that seem automatic, thoughts that have a life of their own, thoughts that seem to go off like a string of firecrackers, one inexorable thought after another until you’re left feeling exhausted and hopeless, certain that the worst has happened. It can help to write down these thoughts as they are happening. Keep a worry journal. This can help you gain some distance from your thoughts, and you can begin to see them objectively, as ‘objects’ separate from you.
You may have heard the saying, “Don’t believe everything you think.” This is what we’re working on here. You can develop the space to see that what ‘you believe’ or ‘think’ is different from what ‘you know’ and who you ‘are’. A daily mindfulness or meditation practice helps immensely in this area.
Allow yourself to consider less distressing explanations as to why your partner is late. Maybe there’s traffic. Maybe his or her cell phone is dead or lost or left on the office desk. Maybe she has an appointment she forgot to tell you about.
Look at the evidence. Look at the alternatives. Look at that string of automatic thoughts, and take some time to question them.
It is true that your partner is late.
It is true that you are worried.
It is true that your breathing is strained.
Is it true that your partner is hurt?
You don’t know that.
Is it true that your partner is dead?
You don’t know that either.
Is it true that your life as you know it is over?
You don’t know that either, though you may feel like it.
Keep paying attention to the body. Keep breathing. Push back at the automatic chain of thoughts. Find counter-arguments and possibilities. Remember other times like this when you worried, and things turned out all right.
Accept that we are hard-wired to worry. For each worrisome explanation, you may need to write down ten calming ones. You may need to stretch or exercise or call someone to help calm your body.
You may find that if you can really let yourself feel what is going on when you worry, that something from your past comes up. You may remember a difficult or even traumatic event from childhood when someone did get hurt, or died, or simply left, never to return.
Our cat, Turtle, was abused before we got her. She had a right to worry about being hurt.
Well, if that’s the case with you, be gentle with yourself and accept that you may worry more than someone with a different background and temperament. You may benefit from working with someone who can help you—or more precisely, help your emotional brain--to work through some of the old fear and worry locked up in your nervous system, fear and worry that is waiting to be re-stimulated whenever someone is late or some other taxing situation arises for you to deal with.And of course make sure you’re taking care of the basics. Get enough physical activity, sleep, and good nutrition. And throughout your worry, or your depression, or your anger, or your bout of binge eating or reckless sex, or whatever it is that you have done in your attempts to cope with your life, it may be helpful to remember the Buddhist prayer, “May my heart be filled with compassion for all beings, especially myself.”