“Do I need to see a doctor?”
“Am I spending enough time with my family?”
“What is the point of everyday life?”
“Should I have a baby?”
“How can I make the world better?”
“Do I spend too much money/not save enough?”
“Am I getting paranoid?”
These thoughts can run circles through our minds at night, precisely when we are trying to settle down to grab a few hours of sleep before the next day begins. They also pop in during our daytime hours as we experience a bit of anxiety around whether we misspoke in our meeting, didn’t perform well enough during a presentation, or wonder if our health is failing us. Worrying may seem to provide some benefit as they bring some mindfulness back to an issue we may want to resolve, but most of the time anxious thoughts do not make our lives better – they are counter-productive and drain our energy.
So unless worrying about the leaking roof results in the action of calling the repairman, it is essentially just a sticky, negative thought loop that generally begets more of itself. Of course, fear is the parent of worry and these two emotions can cause all sorts of issues, ranging from insomnia and digestive issues to tense shoulders and lower immunity.
“Don’t worry, be happy,” Bobby McFerrin advises in a song; people may tell us to ‘lighten up’…but it may not be that simple. As with cravings, sometimes the best way to address worries is to first understand them and then change the way they affect you. Start here and see which situation(s) apply to you:
1. Worrying as a means to Control. Sometimes we believe that ruminating enough about something will help us prevent it or control the outcome. Anxious thinking about the future – 7 months or 7 years into the future – about the potential housing market or where your kids will go to college doesn’t help you in the now nor will it assist you in the future. The unknown can be scary and life is constantly changing; by embracing, rather than resisting it, you can cultivate more inner peace. Many traditions, including yoga and Buddhism, urge a focus on the absolute present – the moment we have right now – and to bring our attention and energy to it. Give it a try: look at the colors and textures of items at your desk or down the hall. Take a 5-minute walk outside and notice the sounds and scents of nature. Embrace the flow of life and your place within it.
2. Fortune-telling. Worrying isn’t a special ability that enables the affected individual to gain some esoteric insight into the future. Some believe that worrying thoughts portend the future and they acknowledge this ‘information’ as a high-level threat. “I might lose my job. I might get divorced. Does this repair signal that my car is breaking down?” Some would say that if you are constantly thinking about how your boss doesn’t think you’re a great employee, or you’re always worried about the state of your marriage …you may bring these worries to fruition.
Also, there’s a notable difference between intuition and worrying. If you’re on a meeting with a new associate and feeling uncomfortable because they give you the creeps, that’s your gut. If you’re feeling uncomfortable because you see them as competition for your job, that’s worry. Just remember intuition starts as a gut feeling which can help provide clarity or insight whereas worrying starts as an idea that often stems from anxiety and/or fear.
Distinguishing between productive and unproductive worry, with regard to the future, is important. If you’re worried about having enough money at retirement or whether you’ll develop type II diabetes, this could goad you into creating a budget, speaking with a financial consultant or reducing sugar intake and getting some labs drawn. Unproductive worry can manifest as thoughts about whether people will show up for your presentation or whether Aunt Edith will like your version of mashed sweet potatoes. The difference is understanding what is within your control and what isn’t. A good practice for this is writing down your worries and then seeing what you can do about them. For some you could make a note next to them – set an appointment with a doctor, look through your financial records, see a marriage counselor, or have a lower-sugar breakfast. For others on the list where there isn’t an action step, cross them off as they are typically areas outside of your control which are creating needless anxiety.
3. Http://world-wide-worries. Perhaps terrorist attacks, colony-collapse disorder, GMOs, global warming, and other such maladies are on your mind and causing you nervous energy. While it is wise to be concerned about the the state of the planet and humanity, these worries could go on forever. Constant guilt about the plastic packaging brought into the home or giving up on the purchase of a new lawnmower because of global warming, may not help (the latter will likely earn you a fine from the city). Suffice to say, worrying about the planet isn’t going to help, but supporting the causes most important to you can help create productive action out of that worry. You can choose to modify your buying habits, write letters to officials, grow a garden, volunteer at a food pantry, and join local activist groups. Taking action can be the best anti-dote for these worries.
4. Existential anxieties. These can cover a breadth and depth of anxious thoughts that put the other forms of worrying to shame. Lying awake at night with haunting thoughts about whether or not you have a soul, the point of everyday life, or why you (or any of us) are here may cause restlessness instead of sleep. These thoughts are great for intellectual discourse and for helping you clarify your own beliefs, but if they over-shadow your ‘smaller’ worries (i.e. showering, paying bills, or showing up to work), the latter will become much bigger, very quickly. In a sense, are lucky to be living in one of the periods in human history where we have both time and resources to spend on philosophical ponderings. Not too long ago, many people were not able to read, write, or discuss philosophical ideas when the priority was either finding dinner or not becoming dinner. For this type of worrying, consider taking a philosophy class, reading a book, or attending a small-group meeting in order to discuss these ideas and then release the overwhelming worry.
5. Over-analysis and Ruminating. This worrying takes form as a never-ending carousel ride of thoughts where you just can’t seem to jump off. Running conversations or events on repeat and pulling them apart and analyzing every word and action is rather fruitless. Moreso, it usually just breeds regret of wishing the situation had been different. Unless you’ve taken a quick lesson from poor behavior or word choice, worrying about the past only impinges on your present and your future.
Also, it’s easy to engage in negative self-talk during this type of worrying. Notice your internal dialogue: “I can’t believe I said something so stupid. I always do that” or any other thoughts of self-doubt can be part of the worrying issue. One idea for ruminators is to journal about what happened, what you did, and what you learned and will do differently in the future. Be mindful of negative words you’ve used – “always, never, should, can’t”- and replace them with more positive ones – “will try, prefer not, will choose to.” This allows reliving the experience to gain wisdom and then to close the chapter.
In short, if you identify with one or more of these ‘worrier’ scenarios, remember that action is a productive use of worry, not constantly ruminating and causing additional anxiety. Remember to keep a healthy perspective on life’s flow, engage in relaxing activities, challenge your thoughts, and most of all, perhaps find a bit of gratitude in the process. Happy Thanksgiving!