If there is one thing that can really cast a shadow over a person’s inner world it is worry. We all do it from time to time but for some people it becomes an incessant activity that has a direct and detrimental effect on their happiness and wellbeing.
When I look back at my younger days I am stunned at how much time and energy I spent worrying. I worried about everything; exams, my health, ensuring there was a meal on the table every night, the housework, the children, work deadlines, presentations. You get the picture. During my teens, I even remember spending a crazy amount of energy worrying about the size of my nose!! My internal world was a living hell, which is now in very sharp contrast to my current inner experience.
So, What Exactly is Worry?
The dictionary definition of the verb ‘to worry’ is:
‘to give way to anxiety or unease; to allow one’s mind to dwell on difficulty or troubles.’
I like this definition because embedded within it is a huge amount of empowerment. For me, “to give way to” and “to allow” suggests that worry is an entirely optional activity. It may not seem that way initially to someone who has little or no control over their mind but a little knowledge, self-awareness and discipline can turn even the biggest worrywart into a chilled out optimist.
If I can do it, anyone can.
What is the Real Underlying Problem?
It is the mind’s oversensitivity to negative information.
The human mind likes to be firmly anchored in ‘known’ territory. It likes:
- and familiarity,
so much so that whenever it treads into the ‘unknown’ it creates feelings of anxiety.
It is also hardwired to focus on the negatives in life as opposed to the positives.
Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius provide a great metaphor in their book “‘Buddha’s Brain; The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom’”:http://www.harinderghatora.co.uk/amazon-shop.php:
‘When an event is flagged as negative, the hippocampus (a part of the brain) makes sure it’s stored carefully for future reference. Once burned twice shy. Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones – even though most of your experiences are probably neutral or positive.’
We therefore have a natural tendency to focus on the negatives in life. The good news is that this is a tendency and not a compulsion that cannot be overridden. You can train yourself to be different. And, why would anybody not want to do this?
What Are the Consequences of Incessant Worry?
With one exception outlined below the consequences of worry are all pretty negative:
- Feelings of stress and overwhelm
- A pessimistic outlook on life
- A lack of trust in the natural balance of and/or the goodness of life
- Feelings of displacement away from the ‘here and now’ experience of life
- Feelings of being ungrounded
- Excessive expenditure of energy
- Excessive expenditure of time
- The inability to live life to the full and realise dreams
- And a strain on relationships. Most people don’t like to be around ‘doom and gloom’ merchants. Worrywarts are not pleasant to be around. They can drain you of your energy, enthusiasm and optimism.
Does Worry Serve any Positive Function?
Yes. A little worry can be useful as it prompts action.
- Worry is useful if it makes you pay attention.
- Worry is useful, provided it is turned into a plan for action.
- Worry is useful if it helps you be better prepared.
Exams provide a perfect example of this. I remember coming home from school tired and hungry and just wanting to sit all evening watching TV. If it was not for the nagging feelings of worry about exams looming on the horizon, I am sure I would never have studied.
- The worry made me pay attention to the need to do some revision.
- The worry prompted me to devise a detailed revision timetable.
- The worry made me stick to this timetable and as a consequence I was brilliantly prepared for my exams.
So, if your worry prompts positive action then it is useful. All other worry is a complete and utter waste of time and energy.
So What Can You Do About Your Worrying?
You can be mindful of the statistics below and ask yourself some of the following simple questions.
- 40% of the things we worry about never happen
- 30% have already happened and we can’t do anything about them
- 12% are needless worries such as what someone thinks about us
- 10% are petty and unimportant things in the grand scheme of things
- 4% are about things we have absolutely no control over
- 4% are real worries about which we can do something.
Is it Worth Worrying About?
There are four things that are not worth worrying about but account for a lot of our worries:
- the unimportant,
- the unlikely,
- the uncertain
- and the uncontrollable.
Ban these from your life, and you will worry less.
Pointless Worry Number 1: The Unimportant
It is easy to fill your life with worries about little things. When you find yourself worrying, start to question yourself instead. Ask yourself, “How important is the thing that I am worrying about? Here are three points to help you answer this question.
The 5 year rule: Ask yourself “will this matter in 5 years time?” This is a way of looking at your worry from a long-term point of view. View your worries in different ways: will this still be a concern in a week, a month, a year?
The measuring rod: Ask yourself: “Where, on a scale of bad experiences, is the thing I’m worried about?” Think about a very bad experience you have had. How does your current worry feel when compared with this?
- The calculator: Ask yourself. “How much worry is this worth?” We only have a certain amount of time and energy. Make sure you do not spend more worry on your problem than it is worth.
When you have thought about these three points, decide if your worry seems unimportant. If so, try to stop worrying and distract yourself by using some of the techniques outlined below.
If you still feel your worry is important then read on.
Pointless Worry Number 2: The Unlikely
A lot of worries ask “What if…” questions. All kinds of terrible things could happen today or tomorrow but most things are very unlikely. If you allow yourself to worry about the unlikely then there will be no end to your worrying. Your life will be truly miserable. Tackling real, existing problems in life is hard enough. Do you really want to waste time, energy and happiness on problems that do not exist?
When I first started driving I remember always worrying about what I would do if my car broke down in the middle of a busy roundabout that I had to cross everyday. Did my car ever breakdown in this roundabout; no. What a ridiculous waste of my precious energy!
Pointless Worry Number 3: The Uncertain
Often we do not know how something will turn out. Many things we worry about have not yet happened and we can only take action once we know what has happened.
For example, worrying that you may have failed an exam is not going to improve the results. It is only once the results are released that you can decide what, if anything, needs to be done.
Pointless Worry Number 4: The Uncontrollable
We have no control over many of the things we worry about. For example, worrying about what others think about you is a good example of ‘the uncontrollable’. You have no way of controlling others’ opinions of you so why expend energy and lose happiness over worrying about that?
If you have spent time analysing your worries using the above exercise and you still feel worried then try taking some of the following actions.
Stepping Through Worries
Be clear what the worry is. Ask yourself “What exactly am I worrying about?” Think about each worry and write them down one at a time as clearly as you can.
Decide if something can be done. Look at each worry you have written down and ask yourself, ”Is there anything I can do about this?” Use the exercise above to help you and be honest with yourself when answering.
No? Nothing can be done? Then you can be certain that no matter how much you worry, nothing will change therefore there is no point in worrying. Try the distraction techniques outlined below instead.
- Yes? Something can be done? Then write a list of things you could do to solve your worry.
“Is there anything I could do right now?”
Yes? Then DO IT right away.
No, not right away? Then MAKE A PLAN of when, where and how you will tackle the problem.
When you have done what you can, tell yourself that you have done what is needed and continue with your day.
Ways to Distract Yourself
There is only a limited amount of space in the human mind so keeping yourself busy with other things can make a real difference to how you feel as this will leave no room for worry. Try some of the following things to distract yourself.
Physical Activity. Keeping yourself physically active by doing some exercise is a good way to stop worrying thoughts. And, exercise has been clinically proven to result in the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel good chemicals. These boost your mood naturally and actively contribute to a heightened sense of wellbeing.
Focus on your Surroundings. Concentrate on a specific detail of the world around you, for example making words out of number plates of cars or guessing what people do for a living. Focusing on the outside world will prevent you from thinking about your worries.
- Mental Games. Doing puzzles, crosswords, reciting a poem or a song and counting backwards from one hundred are all useful distraction exercises. Again, they ‘fill’ your mind so there is no room for worry.
Sometimes your attention may drift from what you are doing back to a worry. If this happens, say to yourself that you have done all you can for now. Remind yourself that there is nothing more that can be done today and shift your attention back to your task.
Do not use distraction techniques as a way of avoiding dealing with your worries. Go through the steps above before using distraction.
Boxing In Your Worries
If you are really plagued by worry then try this simple technique. Honour your worry by setting yourself some dedicated “worry time”. Decide on a time and place every day in which you are going to worry. If you start to worry at other times, postpone the worry until “worry time” and return your focus to what you were doing.
During “worry time” let you mind worry freely! Take a pen and paper and write down your worries one by one. Try using the ‘Stepping Through Worries” steps above. Funnily enough, some people find that they are unable to worry to order and so the worry time ends up being trouble free!
Share Your Worries
Strangely, worries do not survive well outside our heads. They seem to lose their power over us as they are articulated and brought out into the open. Talking about a worry can help us to see the bigger picture and can help with finding possible solutions or planning actions.
Try and meet a friend or relative (someone that you trust) and tell them what is on your mind. We all worry and you can be sure they will also have things that they worry about.
And, finally, if you feel you could benefit from some professional short-term support then give me a call. I offer a range of services that can help quieten the mind and promote happiness, peace and wellbeing.
Harinder Tel: 07969 807934 E: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sources: NHS Scotland Borders Dealing with Worry Self-Help Guide Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius: ‘Buddha’s Brain; The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom’