I am no stranger to worry. In fact, I was pretty much raised on it: love, chicken soup and worry. Suffice it to say that worrying is pretty much in my DNA. And after a few decades of counseling others from all walks of life, I realize that I am not alone. It’s human nature to worry. If you’re a parent, I’m pretty sure it’s in the job description. But having spent a lot of time lost in the depths of worry and its more intense form, anxiety, I have often wondered: Is worry actually useful?
We all have our share of things to worry about — from personal to global issues. But there is a distinction between worrying and thoughtful planning. Worry is about focusing on troubling things that might happen but generally speaking, worry does not help a troubling situation. Thoughtful planning and action can help. Deciding to let go and focus on the present moment can help. Sometimes, asking someone else for help can help. Sometimes asking something bigger than our minds — like whatever made the oceans, rainforests, flowers, snowflakes and babies — can help.
It’s not always easy to let go of our worrisome thoughts. Some are stronger and more convincing than others. But if we can stay committed to living more in the present moment instead of believing every thought that pops up in our minds, it can really make a difference.
One of my all time favorite quotes is from the author Eckhart Tolle. He says, “Worry pretends to be necessary but serves no useful purpose.” And boy oh boy does it pretend to be necessary! In my counseling practice, I regularly work with people who worry all the time. When we take a deeper look at their relationship to worry, I often notice a theme. A lot of people think that their worry somehow protects them from or prepares them for painful situations that may or may not happen in the future. But does it really? If someone worries that others will judge or criticize them, how does their worry actually help? How does constantly worrying that one might die prematurely or contract a fatal illness prevent that from happening? The theory I often hear is, “If I think about it in advance, I will be more prepared if or when it actually happens.” But is that true?
Worry does not prepare us for the future. It robs us of the present. Worrying is like trying to prevent something hard from happening in the future while causing something hard to happen in the present — worry! Worry is hard work and it’s stressful. We may tell ourselves that the right amount of worrying will help us get through an eventual disaster or hardship, but worry doesn’t have that kind of power. Now, I’m not talking about realistic preventative measures, like getting timely medical check-ups or going to a couples’ counselor if you’re worried about your relationship. If the weather channel is predicting a big storm, loading up on groceries and batteries might help, but worrying won’t. Unless you’re taking steps to actively do something about the issue or event that you’re worried about, worry is not really helpful.
So what does worry do? Worry makes your body feel as if the circumstance you are worried about is actually happening when in most cases it’s not. After experiencing my first big California earthquake, I found myself worrying frequently about there being another one. Every little jolt, door slam, foot stomp or thunderstorm sent me into a tizzy. Not to mention the quiet times my mind decided to get a jump on things and just plain worry without any evidence whatsoever! I realized after a while that if another actual earthquake happened, I wouldn’t have time to worry. I would head to the nearest door or react in whatever way I manage to at the time. Worrying now won’t help me then. Canned goods and bottled water might. So I began to thank my mind for sharing and for trying to anticipate and prepare for every possible future catastrophic quake. I began to reassure myself that I was actually safe in the moment. And I continued my resolve to spend more time in reality and deal with hard times when they actually arrived, rather than create them in a false attempt to prevent and prepare for them.
In recent years, life gave my worry some concrete evidence to sink its teeth into. My precious 85-year-old father began periodically fainting. Not a big fan of hydrating, the man plays tennis every day in hot weather and decides to as he calls it, “lay down.” Well my worry could have a field day with this one, especially given that my parents live thousands of miles away from me. One particularly memorable day, after a recent episode of “laying down,” I tried calling to check in with him. There was no answer on his or my mom’s cell phones and the home phone was busy… for hours. Well my worry began to have a feast. I’m talkin’ pull up a chair. Until I decided to practice what I preach. I asked myself, if my dad fainted, how is my terrorizing myself going to help him? If something horrible actually happens, how about if I deal with it then instead of creating it in my mind now and dealing with it twice the amount of time? It turns out my Dad had hung up the phone incorrectly, which was why it was busy. When I finally reached him, he was eating ice cream and watching a western. Note to self: We cannot prepare for the unthinkable but we can sure ruin a perfectly good day thinking about it! The episode with my dad reinforced this valuable lesson. We can deal with the hard parts of life when they actually occur or we can deal with them in our minds constantly and also when they occur.
Even though worry feels like serious business, a sense of humor can help sometimes too. In a recent session with a client who was preparing to travel abroad for a few months, we discussed her fears about her upcoming trip. She was excited for the opportunity to travel but she was very worried about going off to a foreign country without her familiar support system. She said, “I’m worried that my anxiety will ruin my trip.” She then laughed and said playfully, “I’m worried about ruining my trip and I am actually ruining my day! I’m worried about being worried!”
Another client of mine with was facing a frightening medical procedure. She spent months worrying about how much the procedure would hurt and how long it would take to heal. And she worried about having to go through it all again if her condition didn’t improve. The dreaded day finally came and went and she later told me that the procedure wasn’t nearly as bad as she had anticipated. She talked about how many months she spent worrying about the pain compared to how many moments the actual pain lasted and she was amazed. When she began to talk about how much time she “wasted” on worrying, I told her that the time would not be a waste if she could use it as a reminder to worry less and stay more present the next time she was facing a scary life circumstance.
These days, there’s plenty of grist for the worry mill: terrorism, the economy, climate changes, to name a few. Personally, I could lock and load my worry full-time if I’m not careful, conscious and in charge of who’s steering this tender ship. But I am. I realize every day that worrying about war, drought, floods, school shootings or the health of my loved ones is not going to keep something really hard from happening. Worrying only makes my system feel like the hard things are happening now.
So if you are a periodic or perpetual worrier, try asking yourself: Is this worry actually helping me or anyone else? Is there some action I could take to prepare for this worrisome possibility or can I let go and let life do what it will do anyway (with or without my well-intentioned assistance)? Can I reassure myself that whatever happens, I will handle it if and when it happens?
And then ever so gently, bring yourself back to whatever is actually and factually happening in this present moment right now…