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W is for Worry

One of the most destructive daily habits that it is easy to get caught up in is the habit of worrying which is rooted in fear of the unknown

"Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow

it only saps today of its joy"

Leo F Buscaglia

What is worry?

"Worry is a chain of thoughts and images, negatively affect-laden and relatively uncontrollable. It represents an attempt to engage in mental problem-solving on an issue whose outcome is uncertain but contains the possibility of one or more negative outcomes. Consequently, worry relates closely to the fear process". 

(Borkovec, Robinson, Pruzinsky and DePree, 1983)

As humans we have the skill of thinking ahead, of making plans and considering eventualities and outcomes. This is a very useful tool but it can also have a negative effect on our lives as we see that negative outcomes are also possible. Worry could perhaps be defined as thinking about the future in a way that leaves us feeling anxious and/or apprehensive… often without actually achieving anything apart from depleting us of energy which could have been more usefully employed for practical problem solving or rationalising.

“Worrying is carrying tomorrow's load with today's strength- carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” Corrie Ten Boom

Worry can be about a ‘real event’ or a ‘hypothetical event’ and the level of our concerns can be at what is considered a ‘normal’ healthy amount of worry to ‘excessive’ worry.

“Worry is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind.

If encouraged, it cuts a channel

through into which all other thoughts are drained” Arthur Somers Roche

We all have idle stray thoughts on all sorts of subjects but these are not the problem. The problem occurs when we give concerning thoughts more time and space than they deserve.

We create our lives with the thoughts which are persistent and to which we give the most attention.

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway on the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives” Henry David Thoreau

This is backed up by science through the study of neuroplasticity or brain plasticity, which looks at the ability of the brain to adapt to changes in an individual’s environment over time. The plasticity of the brain works both ways however; bad habits can be ingrained as easily as helpful ones; "plastic changes may not necessarily represent a behavioural gain for a given subject." (Pascual-Leone).

Short-term worry can be productive if it helps us to focus so that we can plan and solve problems giving us new perspectives but often worry turns into rumination, where we go over and over the same things in our heads without getting anywhere. When we overthink, it becomes increasingly difficult to commit to any specific action or decision and this can often lead to a downwards spiral.

Why do we worry?

“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it's not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.” Dalai Lama XIV

Most have heard of the phrase ‘sufficient to the day is the evil thereof’ it basically means don’t worry about what may or may not happen tomorrow just live in the present using the time to arm yourself with the practical knowledge and information that you need. Easy to say sometimes but not always so easy to do.

We all experience problems in some form or other; it is part of our journey through life and can lead to resilience but worry is an obstacle to happiness that we need to learn to overcome and serves little useful purpose for our energy.

“Problems are opportunities to build character. The problems that we encounter each day give us a chance to abandon our egos and our overindulged personal preferences in order to grow in flexibility and patience. Problems are the time-tested paths to personal growth” Matthew Kelly

There is a song by Dire Straits ‘Why Worry’ that speaks of the inevitability of problems in our lives and in the world generally but it also offers hope that it will be alright in the end:

‘There will be laughter after pain; there will be sunshine after rain’.

Life is like that, and has always been, so why worry?

We worry because we don’t like uncertainty; not knowing how things will work out. The only certainty we can have is knowing that chances are we will encounter problems!

“Life is difficult” M Scott Peck

When we worry it creates the illusion that we have some element of control. It often doesn’t achieve anything but we can convince ourselves that we have some control over something that in reality is entirely out of our control. The small part of a problem that we have control over we can act on and do something about, it is the bit that we don’t have control over that causes us the sleepless nights. It is this part that we need to manage if we are to be able to find happiness and enjoy life.

“You don’t have to control your thoughts, you just have to stop them controlling you

Dan Millman

So what sort of things do we worry about and how can we change our responses?

We all respond to problems differently from using avoidance to blowing problems out of all proportion and becoming overwhelmed to calm acceptance.

Some people seek attention and unconsciously create their identity through their problems – they always have a problem that they are suffering with which they will tell you about whilst others will take a similar situation in their stride without any fanfare or drawing attention to their difficulties. Other people become so overwhelmed that they shut down and find it difficult to function at all but there are also some people that respond to each problem they encounter with a calmness that can infect others; they face their problems, assess what needs to be done/can be done, then begin to work through them or accept that they do not have control over the scenario and focus on controlling their attitude

We worry when we have financial concerns about having enough to survive or health concerns that will impact other people

These are what I would call genuine concerns. When we can’t see a way to meet the bills, or have to try and find the best solution for an impossible situation with regard to health and family members etc Despite the severity or terribleness of a situation though, worrying will still not solve anything and with just sap the little energy we do have. Practical problem solving is the only approach – i.e. exploring all your options, asking for help and advice, getting the perspective of others that might help us to think out of the box and for those of a religious persuasion, praying may help bring peace of mind and/or acceptance. Either way it is about creating a balance between action (doing what we can) with inaction (accepting what we can’t change)

We worry when we are afraid of a possible negative outcome.

“Instead of worrying about what you cannot control, shift your energy to what you can create.” Roy T. Bennett

One tip I read once to reduce our worries was to imagine the worst possible scenario that could possibly happen and then work through in your mind a ‘plan-of-campaign’ as to how you would cope with the worst possible outcome. Once you had armed yourself with ‘a plan’ then you were free to concentrate on dealing with whatever life actually throws at you. Quite often our minds are capable of coming up with scenarios that turn out to be 100 times worse than reality!

“If you want to be happy, do not dwell in the past, do not worry about the future, focus on living fully in the present.” Roy T. Bennett

We worry when we are not sure that we are making the right choice about something.

Sometime in life we face very difficult decisions. All we can do is to try and gather up all the information we can and get perspectives from others and then spend some time listening to our quiet inner voice; our intuition (our gut instinct)

We worry when we have to face something that we have not done before.

It is natural to be worried when we face new things that we have not done because we do not know what will happen. Again all we can do is do sufficient preparation and find out about everything by reading about it or talking with others who have perhaps already gone through a similar experience.

We are concerned about looking silly, becoming emotional, not knowing what to do

Everyone has to start sometime we are all beginners at one point in time and we all make mistakes when we are learning or doing something new.

When you are concerned about becoming emotional for example, what are you concerned about exactly? Is it being vulnerable or losing some sort of street cred’, are you concerned that people will see through the social mask you wear or are you concerned that someone is going to think you silly? If they do, so what? What does it matter that a stranger or even a friend sees a weakness? Is it going to change who you are by being honest and vulnerable? A true friend will accept you ‘warts and all’.

If you don’t know what to do, even if others are gruff or impatient with you, remember that their reactions are not about you, they are more a reflection of themselves

There is a lovely quote from a letter that German poet, Rainier Maria Rilke, wrote to a student of poetry that is a useful aide memoire

“Be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves liked locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given to you now because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer”

Problems are not the problem, our responses to problems are so if we can change our responses then we can improve our life. It has been proven time over that man can endure virtually anything if they have a "why" i.e. they can see the purpose of what they are doing.

If we can reframe our resistance to our problems and see them as unavoidable opportunities for growth rather than some sort of cosmic mistake to try and bypass, then we can ask ourselves salutogenic questions like What can I learn from this situation ? and How will this help me to become a better version of myself ?

“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.” Viktor E Frankl

How can we reduce the amount of worry in our lives ?

“Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow” Swedish proverb

Worry, is more in your head (cf with anxiety which is often visible in the way your body responds.) It can skew our perspective, keeping us fixated on the details, and preventing us from seeing the big picture of a situation.

As well as fact-gathering, we can use techniques like act, defusion, mindfulness, reframing resistance etc to change our responses to our thoughts and in so doing we can reduce the impact worrying has on our lives.

“There is a seed of anger in every one of us. There is also a seed of fear, a seed of despair...And the agent of transformation and healing is called mindfulness” Thich Nhat Hanh

We think best when we have a clear head. We have a clear head when we are calm and can think straight therefore it makes sense to practise techniques that can re-centre ourselves.

We all live in a busy, fast-paced world and it is easy for our responses to become habitual reactions rather than reasoned, reflective and intentional responses specific to the situation in hand.

“We have become a nation of thoughtless rushers, intent on doing before thinking, and hoping what we do magically works out. If it doesn’t, we rush to do something else, something also not well thought-out, and then hope for more magic.” Len Holman

It is important to create time to know ourselves before we face different situations, to develop the ability to pause when we find ourselves in the middle of something so that we can control our conditioned responses and then spend time after an event reflecting on what we have learned

Our values play an important role in reducing our worry too.

Values are important because they can guide you and motivate you through situations where your feelings might lead you off course. Acting in accordance with your own deepest values is inherently satisfying and fulfilling – even though it often forces you to face your fears.”

Russ Harris

When you incorporate mindfulness with your values and take action, you develop psychological flexibility i.e. the ability to adapt to different situations.

“Mindfulness + Values + Action = Psychological Flexibility”

Russ Harris

This psychological flexibility allows us to approach the things that arise that we might worry about with more confidence.

“It is difficult to live in and enjoy the moment when you are thinking about the past or worrying about the future. You cannot change your past, but you can ruin the present by worrying about your future. Learn from the past, plan for the future. The more you live in and enjoy the present moment, the happier you will be.” Roy T. Bennett

A question to think about/or discuss below:

“How would your life be different if…You stopped worrying about things you can’t control and started focusing on the things you can? Let today be the day…You free yourself from fruitless worry, seize the day and take effective action on things you can change.” Steve Maraboli

If you want to reflect more on this subject, here are some links to get you started:

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