Stop Worrying about Worry
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | October 2015 (Edited September 2018)
We worry. Thinking about the future is an adaptive response to complex problems; we prepare and we avoid. But too much worry interferes with constructive action. We even worry about our worrying.
Worrying is automatic; for many, the slightest problem triggers relentless thought, interrupting other aspects of living. Worry doesn’t just take an emotional toll but also impacts physical health. Nothing new, right? We already know worrying is disruptive. Even the most seasoned, serial worriers know too much worry isn’t healthy. Fretting over life is a learned response. Stopping programmed responses—such as worrying—isn’t simple. Like other life changes, we must employ intentional work combined with patience and persistence to achieve even modest improvements. Setbacks always besiege the wearied traveler during long journeys. When we think we’ve made it, we soon discover a new challenge that sends us reeling and we revert to past comfortable practices of fret. When mental energies are exhausted, we return to the harming practices of the past.
Physical and emotional reactions—such as incessant worrying—evolve from a complex mixture of biological, social, and experiential factors that weave together to create our feelings in the present.
Worrying isn’t bad. Worry is essential to prepare for the future. When present action is blind to the future, lives become chaotic and dysfunctional. Worrying is a byproduct of planning for the future. Ancestors that worried about an approaching winter stored food and built protective shelters during the harvest season; preparation enhanced the likelihood of survival during the more barren months.
Unfortunately, the future is not perfectly predictable. Therefore, preparation isn’t perfect. We can’t be certain whether we are over or under preparing.
There’s no crystal ball. The future remains largely unknown; no matter how much we plan—and worry. The unknowns of the future will continue to haunt the present, driving a need to prepare for every possible contingency. We must find balance. Anxiety over unknown futures consistently interfere with joys in the present. The cost-benefit scale for the effectiveness of planning peaks and then rapidly declines into lost sleep, inescapable anxiety, and creativity-draining fatigue. Moderate worry prepares but excessive worry destroys.
"Anxiety over unknown futures consistently interfere with joys in the present."
If we habitually worry, we may introduce worrying over worry. “Oh no,” we may muse, “I am a worrier!” Worrying about worrying sucks us deeper into discouragement. We must re-direct to constructive action instead of nonconstructive rumination of the constant flow of “what-ifs.” Sometimes anxiety exists in our minds just seeking a problem to project the worry on. If this is the case, professional help may be needed. Fearful pasts continue to live in the mind and must be combated. Scientifically proven relaxation techniques such as meditation, tai chi, or yoga may provide measured escape. Habitual worriers constantly fight battles with wandering thoughts, and perhaps permanent escape is not possible or realistic; they may fight this war for the remainders of their lives.
Engrained patterns of thought often don’t fade with time—they strengthen, remaining a psychological thorn that disrupts peace and sleep for decades. Knowing a psychic pattern exists doesn’t solve the issue; and may even magnify the discomfort. Be patient and compassionate with your propensity to worry, treating the bothersome flaw as a dear but sometimes annoying friend. Change may come with effort, but not always. Sometimes complete extraction of the thorn isn’t possible, we simply must learn to manage the derailment of thought in less destructive ways, limiting the disruptions, and practicing self-soothing.
We can appreciate our uniqueness, including the pesky worrying that occasionally enters uninvited, and disrupts our peace. We can worry as still be successful happy adults. Our worrying possibly is one of the motivators that pushed us into the successful careers we now enjoy. The recent wave of self-revealing disclosures of mental illness has unveiled a host of professional athletes, musicians and movie stars that suffer from varying levels of anxiety. We can’t blanketly give credit to anxiety for propelling their success, but we can correctly deduct that it didn’t prevent them from succeeding either.
Maybe our worry over worry has much to do about nothing. We cautiously watch the anxiety, seek help when it interferes with life, compassionately accepting some of the anxiety as normal. As we courageously move forward, open to different approaches, we will discover healthier ways to deal with out worrying demons and find our own niche in life where we can succeed despite the worries, and hopefully without the worrying about our worries.