How to Worry Less and Make Them Work for You
Stewarding Worries and Not Confusing Them for Each Other
In a scene from ‘The Intern’, Anne Hathaway’s character Jules, wrestled with the knowledge that her husband was cheating on her. She finally breaks down and declared aloud ‘I don’t want to be buried alone. Paige’ll be with her husband, and Matt’ll be with his new family, and I will be buried with strangers. I’ll be buried in the strangers singles section of the cemetery. Not that that is a reason to stay together. But it’s just, you know, a scary sidebar?’ I bet many of us snorted then sniggered at her outburst because it sounded downright ridiculous. But worry is exactly like that, it matters so much to the person saying it (you can’t doubt that Jules was serious about those strangers singles cemeteries) and yet when spoken aloud, majority of us would say that the basis of that worry is unfounded.
Worrying is a mental distortion. Without going into the varied shapes and forms it can take, it is sufficient to acknowledge that if worrying is the first thing you do in your survival kit when change happens, it is safe to say that it is a lifestyle pattern that has developed over the years. You might not even notice doing it until you jerk awake in the middle of the night sobbing to the thought of losing your job because a colleague mentioned pay cuts last week around the water cooler. It feels like walking into a spider’s web.
Most of the time, I encounter worry like that. I’m walking life’s journey and suddenly I whoosh through an unexpected invisible barrier. Immediately, I have a horrible certainty that a spider is buried in my hair. No matter how long I spend picking off the sticky threads, ruffling my clothes and hair; hours later I’m still jumpy at phantom strands and imagined spindly legs running down my back. That’s what worry is like to our minds, it is relentless and mostly shadows. You can’t find the root or the end because it is a projection larger than its source. We believe in the worst that has happened and cling to a mistaken understanding that the more we envision the multiple possibilities of what will happen (projected shadows), the chances of us navigating safely out of the nightmare is higher.
In a well-known sermon that Jesus made called the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns against worrying and sums up asking: ‘Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?’ The answer is definite, none of us can and if we continue to feed the habit, it becomes the worst life partner — sapping us like a parasite. With such a lot of uncertainty (US mid elections anyone?) rocking our boats daily, I don’t mean to say that worry is something to be ignored or brushed aside. In fact, in proper perspective, they can be triggers for stewarding present resources, experiences and desires towards a safer harbour. The trouble is many of us grip the wrong end of worrying, we’ve misunderstood worrying for stewarding!
Facing the reality of change, then making informed and healthy management plans to achieve the best outcome for the present and future, is at the core of good stewardship. I may be presumptuous to suggest this but a lot of good stewardship begins with a little bit of healthy worry. Once we recognize that over worrying has no positive substance or value, it can be a launching pad, a starting point where we train our brains to respond differently and to our benefit. Since you can’t avoid it (for it is almost impossible to not worry), you can learn to lessen the impact by worrying less and making it work for you!
Here are three things that I suggest to help rewire those thought patterns to defeat needless worry:
PPT and Rephrasing the Questions
Humans are naturally pessimistic, no thanks to the running negative commentaries surrounding us via the media, external criticism and general societal sentiment. To counter that you need a positive influence and the first person you can look to providing that is, yourself. Since most of the questions crowding your mind come from your experiences and expectations, no one else is better qualified to unpack those niggling pests. I call this the PPT — Personal Pep Talk. The key objective is to be your own best friend and to root into the source of the worry by asking the right questions.
Due to our propensity to ask negative angled questions like ‘what if I go bankrupt?’, ‘what if I’m not good enough?’, ‘what will happen to my children if I am injured?’, that guides us instantly down a depressing train of thought (admit it, you’ve probably answered those questions automatically with despair!), we need to stop it before spiraling into hot mess. Some may recognize it as mindfulness but it isn’t sufficient to simply stop the questions and thoughts. I suggest going a step further and speak aloud to reason out those sentiments with questions that have forward momentum.
Put your phone on silent, shut the room door and ask aloud those questions that are resurfacing. Deal with each one, dismissing those that are baseless and focus on expanding those that have real impact to the situation. Most issues will open up positive possibilities when you break it down into questions like ‘who can I speak to about my financial situation?’, ‘how do I convince them that I am good enough?’, ‘are there plans that insure against injury?’ which should lead your thoughts to explore solutions, options, people or circumstances that can assist in resolving that worry.
Once you’ve done that, you’ ll have a vague plan to work on instead of a cacophony of voices shouting in your head. It doesn’t need to be perfect; it is a work in progress that should get you from being passive towards active management.
What if you are faced a worry that isn’t solvable on your own, no matter how much confidence you inject through your PPT? That leads us to option two:
Talk to Someone Who Matters to the Equation
I discovered that these sort of worries are usually connected to another person be it your friend, boss, spouse, parent or children. They are rooted in relationships and are unsolvable because there’s another person in the equation. If your unsolvable worry is ‘what can I do if a meteor hits me?’ or something of that nature, you can skip this section. I’m talking about worries that make you think that the fate of your life is in the hands of another person who doesn’t seem to be batting for you at all.
Usually we end up venting our frustrations with someone outside of the equation. It’s fine speaking to someone about your emotions and getting support but sometimes it may be more effective to find the person causing the worry and have an honest chat with them. They alone can provide the necessary opinion to this big unknown you are struggling with. It takes an ample amount of courage and a good measure of awkwardness but it is many times better than steaming in anxious worrying without end. Get to the source and don’t avoid the confrontation.
There is a possibility that the conversation may not pan out the way you hoped because we expect the other party to empathize or at the least, acknowledge that they had wronged us somehow. It could worsen your relationship for a period of time but it is much more empowering to face the issue that is out in the open between the both of you than to fend off shadows in your head based on imagined conversations and reactions. During the times I’ve done this (think of heart pumping conversations with an emotional boss or may-the-floor-swallow-me confessions to a crush) I discovered that those encounters broke the hold of worrying over me.
In fact, I’m often surprised that the other party wasn’t aware that they were causing pain and that I in turn, was beginning to cause them worry by subconsciously reacting to the imagined ‘oppression’ in my head instead of the actual person that I had a relationship with. I think the greatest value is learning the other person’s point of view and realizing that I’ve been selfishly scripting a drama in my head with me as the righteous victim. It’s really unfair to the other party! The chats that were rocky resulted in more conversations to iron out the misunderstanding. We often run on assumptions and believe in our version of the story over another but again, they are mental distortions and after getting past bumpy reconciliations, those relationships ended up stronger than before.
Time Out When It Gets Too Overwhelming
Like how a possum feigns death in the face of enemies, this is another tip that helped me navigate my anxious seasons; I played dead to my worries by not giving it the attention it wanted. When everything gets too overwhelming, give yourself a time out. I don’t mean lie in bed with your thoughts hoping to sleep them off or rely on the illusion that maybe the sun will shine brighter thereby making you feel better. No, I mean a proper time out that returns you to the best version of yourself.
Take some time to consider this, when are you the best version of yourself? Not the worry wart that you’ve turned into in the last few months. For some it may be when you are meditating, going to the movies alone, volunteering at the animal shelter, surfing, playing with your kids, whatever it is; there is a version that you love of yourself. Set time aside so you can be that person for a few hours.
I love scribbling. Park me in a comfy chair with some pencils and a notepad; I’ll immediately morph into a purring cat. I don’t aim for perfect drawings or notes, I focus on the enjoyment of putting nib to paper, to watching what comes out of my subconscious and chuckle at the ugly drawings or silly verses I’ve created for fun.
Under the influence of enlarged worries, we often forget that we are in reality good, capable, fun loving, and amazing people. Carve out time to remember that and when we are dizzy with worry, we need the opportunity to gather our thoughts and store courage to deal with it. During your time out, those worries do come to mind and its okay! Take a deep breath and play dead to those thoughts. Let them filter away as you focus again on the favorite version of yourself. By the end of those hours, your true identity should be stronger than pesky questions and squirmy feelings in the stomach. The golden ticket is to ensure that you do something you genuinely love and enjoy!
If you realized, all the techniques above eventually drives you to face the issues head on. There is no relief by postponing or avoiding the root of the problem. By doing the above, you will help your mind recognize worrying for what it is. It may be difficult in the beginning, but if you are intentional and consistent, it will eventually become second nature to use the pinging voice of worry as the starting point for better stewardship of your life!