We all go through phases of intense worry…that overwhelming feeling of dread and helplessness. Why do we worry? A multitude of reasons. Perhaps we are dealing with financial woes, illness or problems with our kids. It’s normal.
Most people ride the worry wave until whatever short-term crisis runs its course and eventually life returns to normal, but what happens when we can’t turn it off? The frenetic pace of a typical family today (we’re late for soccer practice; gotta get dinner on the table; where’s my backpack?; did the electric bill get paid? how could you fail your science test?) gives rise to a different breed of worrier. What does that look like? Well…it kind of looks like me.
I am a professional ruminator. I worry about how much I worry. There is a constant voice in the back of my mind that plays out all kinds of disaster scenarios, and it usually concerns something so trivial, so mundane, that under normal circumstances it might garner a chuckle. For example, I sometimes lay in bed and worry about the price of gas. Can I control this? No, I cannot. But I worry anyway because I have a big, gas-guzzling car.
My specialty is worrying about money. I worry that we can’t pay our mortgage (it’s never happened), I worry that the electric bill will be high because I ran the heat for a couple of nights, I worry that we won’t have enough money to retire, I worry about the cost of groceries…on and on it goes. Most of the worrying involves fairly unrealistic scenarios that may or may not happen sometime in the future. So, in other words, it’s completely unproductive.
The worry physically manifests in the form of tight neck and shoulder muscles, trouble sleeping and an overall ‘heavy’ feeling – I am Atlas and my worries are all-consuming.
Well, it’s a new year. My resolution is to stop worrying. I’ve read several articles about breaking this bad (and useless) habit recently, and share the highlights here in the off-chance that you also suffer from needless worry and have finally had enough.
How do we break the cycle? Read on:
1. Breathe. Take a moment to notice your body. Are your shoulders hunched up next to your ears? Is your breathing shallow? Chances are you are carrying yourself in a tight little ball of anxiety without even realizing it. Roll your shoulders, let them relax and breathe. Take nice, deep belly breaths and just focus on feeling your entire upper body relax. Ahhhhhh. Check in with yourself often and keep those shoulders down.
2. Recognize that worry = fear. You’re afraid. That’s OK. I would venture to guess that it’s not about your child’s science grade, it’s about the bigger picture. Deep down you may be doubting your abilities as a parent – maybe you have all along. After all, you’re still shaking your head in wonder that the doctor let you leave the hospital with that baby. Whatever the reason, if you look beyond the thing that’s worrying you, chances are it’s a larger more complex matter that requires more introspection. It’s scary to face (and embrace) our weaknesses and those nagging parts of our personalities that may not be popular or politically correct, but once we recognize our shortcomings (whether real or imagined), we can forgive ourselves and move forward, flaws and all. Worrying is simply a manifestation of our fears and our attempt to control them, rather than deal with or accept them.
3. You are working too hard when you worry. When you’re worried it’s your body’s way of engaging its fight-or-flight instinct. The adrenaline flows freely and your heart rate accelerates. Your senses are hyper-aware and you are preparing yourself for what comes next. Our bodies were designed for this in extreme emergency situations. The problem with chronic anxiety is that it forces your body to maintain this state of readiness all the time. No wonder we’re tense. No wonder we catch a lot of colds. Our poor immune systems are working too hard. When you start to worry, ask yourself if it’s worth the physical toll. All that worrying is accelerating the aging process (great, now we have to worry about that!).
4. Pick one worry and let it consume you. Take a minute to worry, but do so in a productive way. Pay close attention to what it is that has you so concerned – what is the number one issue that has you so wound up? Now, instead of inventing frightening outcomes, think of three things you can do to solve the problem. Is the bank charging you ridiculous fees every month? Do you get stressed just thinking about it? Relax, call the bank and negotiate a better deal – or switch banks. Do you dread that monthly volunteering commitment? Step down. Admit to yourself that it’s too much. It’s fine. Have a disagreement with a family member? Stop worrying about what they’re thinking. Pick up the phone and apologize (whether it’s your fault or not). You’ll be amazed at the feeling of relief once you do so.
5. Procrastination breeds worry. Practicing avoidance in an effort to sidestep a responsibility (which is my other specialty) is a recipe for more worry. I can’t tell you how important it is to tackle the hardest (and most dreaded) item on your to-do list every day. This simple act will unburden you like nothing else. Big project at work? Jump in. Stop putting it off because you’re worried about how you’ll get it done by the deadline. Just starting will build momentum and get you focused on the task at hand. Are you horrible about listening to voice mail and returning phone calls? Do it first thing before you talk yourself out of it and invent reasons to put it off. You see, the longer a nagging responsibility sits in our to-do box, the more power it has over us.
6. Find a release and commit to it daily. Write in a journal, pull out that knitting project you’ve been neglecting for years, go for a massage. I know it sounds rote, but the fact is we are putting ourselves last. We do this and convince ourselves it’s what is best for our family. Nothing could be farther from the truth. You know the old saying…”If Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”. It’s true! Rediscover something that you used to love. Think back to when you were a kid: Did you love riding your bike? Reading? Playing piano? Find an activity that brought you joy and peace. For me it’s writing. I love to sit down and put my thoughts on paper. I lose time (sometimes a lot of time), immersed as I am in the process. Find your release and lose yourself in it for an hour a day. Chances are you will forget all about your worries.
7. Shed negativity. Take a look at your environment. Do you watch a lot of reality TV? Try something more productive, like listening to music or reading a book. Lose that ‘friend’ that gossips or enables your negative thinking. Most importantly, you have to stop that inner voice that cuts you down for life’s small infractions, like skipping the gym (I’m gonna get fat!), having a bad hair day (I’m such a hag!) or yelling at your kids (I’m a bad mom!). Every time a negative thought enters your mind, picture a giant STOP sign. I read this in an article recently, and it works! That vivid red STOP graphic is a powerful tool to help re-direct our thinking.
In my years as a professional (Olympic class) worrier, what I’ve learned is that not once has my worrying solved a problem. In fact, my worrying has had the opposite affect – it amplifies negative and destructive emotions to the point that they consume me and spill over onto my family and loved ones.
Let’s say NO MORE!
Banish worrying in your life once and for all. Recognize your worries for what they are – fear mixed with opportunity. We are intelligent, resourceful and fully capable of managing our fears. Treat yourself as kindly as you would treat a friend in need. Build yourself up with extra helpings of positive thinking and banish the worry with mindfulness and action.
What is your number one worry and what can you do right now to solve it?