Surprisingly, worry can actually help us.

Image by Anh Nguyen

I come from a family of worriers. My mother was a worrier. My daughter is a worrier. Other relatives have confessed to being worriers. My cousin confessed to me that she can create worrisome situations in her head that are so vivid she wonders if she has a “syndrome”.

I worry that worrying might be genetic.

If I don’t have something to worry about, I create a worry. The headache must be a stroke. The people who made the offer on our house will probably back out at the last minute. I won’t have enough money in retirement. The stock market will crash.

In spite of being a very privileged white person who has mostly only first world problems, I worry.

I am currently worried about some travel I have next week. Will I make it to the airport on time? Will the TSA lines be long? Will I remember my passport? Will the flight be delayed? This is all in my head right now. However, as my worrisome thoughts continue, I can feel my stomach tensing and my heart rate increasing. I am heading toward a full blown anxiety attack.

Worry Fuels Anxiety

While anxiety and worry are not the same, they are intertwined. Worrisome thoughts can lead to generalized anxiety and anxiety can lead to worry.

We all know the statistics on anxiety disorder. Almost one third of all Americans will suffer from an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives. More women than men report suffering from anxiety. This year over 19% of Americans will suffer from anxiety.

The cost of anxiety is high. In addition to feeling awful, it can lead to health problems, relationship problems, work problems.

Medication and therapy can help. But controlling worry can also help.

The Dilemma of Controlling Worry

The little glitch (okay it is a BIG glitch) in trying to control worry, is that these troublesome thoughts are often based in reality. Everything I worry about COULD happen! I might be late to the airport. The TSA lines might be long. I might forget my passport.

This is why it is hard to let go of worry, because as I previously mentioned, thinking about the bad things that could happen actually helps us prepare for the bad things that may happen.

In The Unteathered Soul, Michael Singer writes that we are “not the voice of the mind” but “the one who hears it”. So our worrisome thoughts are just that — thoughts. They are not reality and they are not us. We can welcome worry, observe it, and then let it go.

Here are some ways to process worry.

  1. Okay — So Worry Can Prepare us for Bad Things

Worrying about the “what ifs” can provide us with an opportunity to develop back-up plans IF we let our thoughts move beyond the worry and into problem solving mode. If the sale of the house falls though, we can put the house back on the market and maybe get an even better offer (this happened). If we get sick, we can ensure that we have the best healthcare providers our insurance will allow. If we miss a flight, we can get on the next available flight or rent a car if the distance is short.

Having a back up plan or strategy for the worst case scenario is good because it moves us from worry to strategy and action (which in neuroscience means we moved the worry thought to a different part of our brain). The back up plan takes us to a logical/thinking part of our brain away from the part that emotionally hijacked the thought in the first place.

We need to acknowledge that sometimes there are no good back up plans. But much of the time there are good alternative options. We can calm ourselves by thinking through what we would do in these “worst case scenario” situations.

2. Worry Can Help Us Appreciate NOW

When I worry, I always take a moment to realize that right here, right now, I am fine. Ironically, it is only through thinking about future disasters that I am reminded to appreciate the here and now. As Buddha said: “The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.”

3. Worry Can Give Us Information on Unresolved Issues

The content of our worry can give us some insight into what might be our unresolved issues. If we worry about not being included in an invitation to a friend’s party, we might need to look at issues we have related to loneliness or inadequacy. If we worry about our partner being angry at us, we might need to look at unresolved issues we have around conflict management. If we unnecessarily worry about money, we might need to explore the lessons we learned (or didn’t learn) about money as a child.

While understanding the basis of our worry won’t fix the worry, it can provide us with insight into something that we can address — thus easing the intensity of the worry.

4. Worry Provides us with Ongoing Evidence that Bad Things Often do NOT Happen.

According to researcher, 85% of the things we worry about never happen.

Now if you are a worrier, you just turned that around to say “According to researchers, a whopping 15% of the things we worry about DO happen.” Right? That is a worrier’s brain. But the good news is that you can control that little mental flip flop. Focus on the 85% and realize that in the big scheme of all that you worry about, 15% isn’t so bad.

To prove this point, try this little exercise: Make a table with three columns and a row for each decade of your life starting in your teens. In the first column, write down the decade (e.g. “teens”) and in the next column write down everything you worried about in your teens, etc. Continue on with each decade of your life. Now review the list and in the third column, check those worries that actually happened. If you want to get really scientific, you can assess your worry accuracy percentage rate by dividing the total number things that actually happened by the list of worries. According to my list, 86% of what I worried about actually did not happened.

If you don’t want to do this in decades, just make a list of the things that you most frequently worry about and assess if those worries have yet come true. If you are typical, you will be around an 85%/15% ratio.

Many of us can’t avoid worry, but we can learn to welcome it into our lives and then manage it by making a back-up plan, remembering the odds are in our favor that our worries won’t come true, and noticing that right here, right now, we are fine.

So welcome worry into your life. Remind yourself that because you are aware of what could happen, you can be grateful for all that didn’t happen and all that is unlikely to happen.

Peace and love,

Anna B.

Leadership and organizational development coach. Emotional wellness coach. Owner: strategypartnersforhighered.co.

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