If I told you to stop worrying, what would you say?
My guess is that your first response would be “stop worrying about which thing?”
We worry all the time, about lots and lots of things. Relationships, kids, money, health, food, the news, politics, Facebook, social interactions, asking for help, offering help, driving, eating, drinking, clothing, you name it, we’ve worried about it.
I worry too. I worry about whether I’m making the right decisions as a parent. I worry about my marriage. I worry about money. So I understand the lure of worrying.
Does that sound crazy? I wish it were! So let’s try an experiment. Right now, I want you to think about a situation you were worried about. Now, write down all the ways that worrying improved that situation. Seriously, go ahead. Write them down. Did worrying improve your sleep so you were well rested before the event? Did worrying bring you closer emotionally to the people involved so you felt loved and loving? Did worrying improve the taste of the food? Did worrying make the conversations flow easily? Did worrying enable you to communicate in witty banter? Did worrying cure your child’s illness?
How does that quote strike you? For me, it brought two new ideas to mind.
- That worrying is a form of prayer. Prayer is earnestly communicating with the unseen divine and is often repetitive.
- The worrying focuses on the negative. Worries are all about the outcomes we don’t want to see, yet it gives us a laser focus on exactly those outcomes.
Now, I’m not saying this statement is true or false. But I am saying it might be worth your serious consideration.
OK, great, so now we know that worrying is bad. Now what? Are we supposed to worry about worrying?
See, as a former champion worrier, I know how that vicious cycle works! Worrying is bad! So I need to stop worrying! And now I’m worried about my worrying! (Also, now I’m worried that I’ve repeated the word worry so much that it’s losing its meaning).
I’ve written before about how I use medication to manage my anxiety. When I started the medication, I noticed that the critical voice inside my head was instantly silenced. ALL my worries disappeared. Now, over time, as my brain chemistry normalized, some of my critical voices came back. After all, worrying is a natural part of being human. But in that brief and glorious period of time when I was 100% free of worry, I learned an important lesson.
Worrying had nothing to do with my success.
When I started my medication, I had lived with constant anxiety and worries for over 30 years, but I had been highly successful. Starting the medication didn’t impact any of my success. I continued achieving excellence academically. I continued maintaining my home life and my hobbies. I continued, in short, being successful. And that’s when I realized that my worrying had never contributed to my achievements. It deprived me of sleep, it deprived me of joy, it deprived me of peace. But without it, I was just as successful.
So how do we STOP worrying?
My personal experience was a powerful life lesson that greatly reduced the hold that anxiety had on my life. But how can you break the habit?
Be mindful of your worries
The first step is always mindfulness, isn’t it? Try to catch yourself worrying. Look for repetitive thoughts, tension in unusual places in your body, or an unwillingness to do something. These are all red flags that worries have entered your mind. Stop for a moment and think: what are you worried about? Put the worry into words. Maybe you’re avoiding balancing the checkbook because you’re worried about money. Maybe you have a random backache because you’re worried about asking your boss for a raise.
If you can’t catch the actual worries, notice them after they passed. For example, the other day my daughter and I were making lots of cookies. She happily ate a ton of raw dough (I used pasteurized eggs for this very reason). She also got to lick the spoons and eat cookies straight out of the oven. In addition, she ALSO ate some of the candy we were using the decorate gingerbread cookies. After we finished, she asked if she could watch TV while eating some of the cherry tomatoes I had sitting out on the counter. I agreed. She ate the entire quart of cherry tomatoes! When I realized she’d eaten all those tomatoes, I suddenly realized that while we had been baking, part of my mind had been worrying about all the sugar she was eating. I was worried that by allowing her to eat SO much sugar, I was being a bad mom. I didn’t notice the worry until I felt relief over the empty tomato container. That container confirmed to me that my daughter does enjoy eating healthy food, and that allowing her to splurge on sugar now and then wasn’t a terrible parenting decision!
So when you feel relieved, take a moment to consider what you are relieved about. What is the worry that was just invalidated? Put the worry into actual words.
Create a Replacement for Worrying
The best way to stop doing one thing is to start doing another. Now that you’re mindful of your worrying, replace the worries with another activity.
- Prayer. Simply address God (however you understand Her), then state your worry.
- Affirmations. If your worry is about finances, try using an affirmation that you know to be true. For example, write down “I have enough money to meet my needs” in your checkbook register, on a post-it on your computer, and on a card for your bathroom mirror.
- Humor. Laughter is a fantastic way to release emotional energy. Find something you find consistently funny, and keep it on hand. Maybe it’s a YouTube video. Maybe it’s a humor website. Maybe it’s your “Humor” Pinterest board. Use it any time you are worried.
- Gratitude. This is similar to the affirmations. Counter every worry with a thought of gratitude. Worried about your child’s health? Be grateful that you have insurance. Worried about the economy? Be grateful for any material possessions you have. This is not meant to be glib, or guilt-inducing. Instead, it’s about flipping the worry upside down. Every worry can be tied to something good, so find the good and focus on that!
Look at the Survival Question
Part of the power of worrying is the chain reaction that comes with each worry. Let’s say you’re worried about losing your job. You’re also worried about not finding another job immediately, right? Because while losing your job is tough emotionally, if you were fired on Monday and started a new job with the same pay and benefits on Friday, wouldn’t that be OK? The real worry is that IF you lose your job, THEN you won’t be able to find a new one. And THEN you’ll run out of money to pay your mortgage and your bills. And THEN you won’t be able to move in with a friend or family member because none of them have room for you. And THEN you’ll be homeless. And THEN you won’t be able to take your blood pressure medicine. And THEN you’ll have a stroke and end up paralyzed, living on the streets. See how the question of your job turns into a question of your survival?
This goes for the people we love as well. Say you’re worried about your sixth grader’s grades. If he failed one semester, but then made straight A’s the next semester, overall he would pass. But the true worry is that IF he fails one semester, THEN he’ll lose motivation to try. THEN he’ll drop out of school. THEN he’ll run away because you’re punishing him for dropping out. THEN he’ll turn into a homeless drug user and die alone.
This may sound silly, but it’s the reason your worries are truly scary. All worries tap into the question of survival. That’s why writing down your worry and then tracing the chain reaction to survival is so powerful. It shows you exactly what you’re afraid of while also showing you how many things would have to go wrong before you die.