Chronic Worry: Can We Choose Our Worries?
As I have mentioned in previous posts I regard myself as a chronic worrier. I have a theory that many of us worrywarts are also people who also possess the trait of creativity. Creativity is wonderful when we use it to generate new ideas or solutions to problems. Creativity is not put to good use when we use it to conjure up elaborate scenarios to worry about. When you think about it, worry is usually focused upon the "what ifs." The worrier’s mind fills in the gaps of the unknown with all sorts of possible outcomes, usually bad ones. One needs imagination to worry. As Mark Twain once said, "I have spent most of my time worrying about things that have never happened." In addition to wasting creativity, worry takes a toll on our time and energy. A lengthy worry-fest can leave me physically and emotionally drained and by the end of it I am as heavy and limp as an over-soaked wash rag. We all know that chronic worry and anxiety is not good for us but how do we stop? Is it possible to cease being a victim of our worry and make better use of our time, energy, and creative talents? I believe it is possible but it requires some cognitive change on our part. One strategy for overcoming chronic worry is to make a conscious decision about our focus of worry. In this post we are going to explore how to decide which worries are worthy of our time and energy and which worries need to be set free in order to protect our mental health.
This past week I have spent time with a dear friend who has gotten some bad news. My friend’s father will be undergoing tests to confirm a suspicion of cancer. He is in his later 80’s and although my friend is quite distressed, she was not shocked by the doctor reports. One of the reasons why my friend is not shocked by her father’s ailing health is that she has been preparing for this situation for about two decades now. As we sat and talked in a coffee shop, my friend confessed that when her father reached a certain age, she began to worry about his eventual death. She worried how it would happen, how she would cope, and how devastated she would feel when her father was gone. She had been gearing herself up for loss for years and expending much energy to do so. We both agreed that you really don’t know what such a situation is going to be like until it actually happens. There is no way to emotionally prepare for loss. My friend expressed regret that she spent so much time imagining what this time in her life would be like instead of just enjoying all the moments with her dad.
And even now, the official diagnosis is yet to be made. There is treatment for cancer if this is what her father is dealing with yet in some cases treatment is not always effective. There are still many unknowns. My friend is like so many of us who fill in those unknowns with worry. How do we make the decision to re-focus our energy spent upon worrying onto more positive pursuits? The following are some questions to help you make conscious choices about the focus and extent of your worry:
- Do I have all the facts about this situation or event?
Sometimes people begin to worry before they have all the information and facts about what they may be dealing with. This is especially true of health concerns. It takes great patience to wait, but it is best to get test results and an official diagnosis before imagining worst case scenarios.
- Is this something I have control over?
Sometimes this is a difficult question to answer. In some cases we do not perceive that we have any control at all when this is not the case. In other situations we may inaccurately believe that if we possess super human powers to change the inevitable. One example is the teen who feels that if he or she is a perfect child, that this will somehow prevent his or her parents from divorcing. There are some things in life we have to learn to accept. Knowing which life circumstances we can change or must accept is one way to conquer worry.
- Is there something else I can do with all the energy and time devoted to worrying?
A regret of many worriers is that they spent so much time and energy devoted to worrying that they lose part of their life. Some people literally get sick with worry and lose not only time but their health too. Think about the hours and days you have spent in worry and now imagine what you could have done with that time. The next time you get sucked in by worry; think about alternative ways to use that energy.
- Is this worry something which is my responsibility?
Many people worry over things which are not their responsibility. One example is the over-protective mother who worries about her grown daughter’s lack of dates. So mom worries and begins to meddle by introducing her daughter to every known eligible bachelor. This is not mom’s responsibility to make sure her daughter gets married. This is the type of worry that can destroy a relationship. The cure in this example is for mom to let go and allow her daughter to lead her own life.
- Would a change in perspective decrease my worry?
Sometimes it helps to get a second perspective on a situation or event that you are worried about. This is particularly true when it comes to worrying about relationships. We are all capable of misunderstanding other people’s communication, intentions, or motives. It is sometimes wise to seek clarity in such situations so that we don’t assume the worst.
- Is action required to resolve or lessen this worry?
In some cases worry is warranted such as when we see how our words or actions have hurt another person. Yet worry or concern is not enough to rectify the situation. Action may be necessary to resolve the problem or mend the relationship. The action required may be as simple as an "I am sorry." In other cases we may need to substantially change our behavior. Taking responsibility for our mistakes can reduce stress, anxiety, and worry.
The answer to my original inquiry, "Can we choose our worries" is not an easy question to answer. There are many events and circumstances we have absolutely no control over. For example, if I were in my friend’s situation I would be worried too. Worrying is human and sometimes it just means you care. Yet we do have choices about how much time and energy we give to our worries. We have the ability to re-focus our energies towards being present and attuned to the people in our life. We also have the capacity to develop problem solving or coping strategies. Worry does not help us to move on and to grow. Worry is the perpetual muck we get stuck in when we become frightened. If we wish to keep our mental health we need to find ways to become unstuck and free ourselves from the trap of excessive worry.
We would love to hear from you now. Do you think it is possible to choose our worries? Or do you feel that you are victimized by your worry and your life struggles? How do you decide which events or situations in life are worthy of your worry?