December 12, 2011
Worry a little bit every day and in a lifetime you will lose a couple of years. If something is wrong, fix it if you can. But train yourself not to worry. Worry never fixes anything. – Mary Hemingway
Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life…Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. – Jesus of Nazareth
Worry—derived from the Old English “worien” and Old High German “wurgen” meaning to strangle, constrict or choke. Synonyms include annoy, harass, harry, plague, pester and tease. Defined in Webster’s as “mental distress or agitation resulting from concern for something impending or anticipated.” Related terms include worry beads (beads to be fingered to keep one’s hands occupied), worry line (a crease or wrinkle on the forehead or between the eyebrows), and worrywart (a person who is inclined to worry unduly).
Worrying and Missing Today: Life is filled with uncertainties and it is impossible to predict the future. In response to these unknowns our common reaction is to fret and worry. But worry always has its eyes set far down the line. Worry does not focus on today and what might be changed and improved. Rather, the habit of worry targets what is yet to happen–and what may not happen. In most cases, the raw material of worry is composed of improbable and unlikely anticipated events. Worst of all, even when worry is prompted by legitimate concerns, it convinces us that to think and talk is enough. Worry does not require, or even allow, action and change. This focus on anticipated (but rarely occurring) calamities, coupled with a lack of action, causes today’s joys to evaporate. As Leo Buscaglia wrote, “Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.” Worry pushes us into many tomorrows long before their time. The sage philosopher and comic strip character, Charlie Brown, wisely commented, “I’ve developed a new philosophy—I only dread one day at a time.”
But Sometimes Doesn’t Worry Help Us? No. Worry is a passive response and it doesn’t help at all. Now, it is true that we often have concerns about possible threats of pain or loss. And it is true that our concerns are often rooted in past experiences of personal difficulties or trauma. So, these worries are not unfounded or conjured up by our imagination. Our worries may be based upon the warnings of credible professionals and wise people. But when our concern does not translate into action, it remains as ruminating and repetitive thought. Then our concern has become worry and the worry does not help. Credible and reality-based warnings, as well as past painful experiences, do not move us to action, but only prompt us to engage in fretful speculation and wondering. Worry, by nature, is unproductive.
Worrying and Distorting Reality: “If I treat every situation as a life and death matter, I’ll die a lot of times,” (Dean Smith, college basketball coach). “Worry gives small things a big shadow” (Swedish proverb). Worry takes a possibility and exaggerates its likelihood of occurring. Worry exclusively focuses upon the possible negative outcome. Worry belongs to the domain of the “glass half empty.” Interestingly, we never worry that something good may happen. Rather, when we anticipate or wish for good things to occur we call this hope. Hope is basically the polar opposite of worry. But it is surprising how often we seem to prefer to focus our hearts and minds on matters of worry rather than lifting ourselves toward hope and optimism.
Worry and a Lack of Clarity: “I refuse to be burdened by vague worries. If something wants to worry me, it will have to make itself clear,” (Robert Brault). Much of the fuel that propels worry is predicated upon a lack of clarity. This lack of clarity comes from: 1) a poor or unproductive framing of a concern, 2) unrealistic goals for resolution of the concern, and 3) an unwillingness to recognize that you have limited control over the problem or concern. It is important to frame (understand) the concern in a way that allows you to take some action. Do not frame the problem in a way that “handcuffs” you or leads you to inaction. Don’t allow the problem to be set-up as unsolvable. Secondly, set meaningful but realistic goals about how the concern might be resolved. Lastly, remind yourself that you probably have limited influence over the situation and that, given the circumstance; you will only be able to do so much. So, take action and do what you can, but do not ruminate over problems you cannot impact.
Worry Smothers Gratitude: When we focus on the future in an unbalanced way (filled with fear)—any perspective of appreciation and thankfulness is quickly choked-out. Worry prematurely pushes us into tomorrow, while it also pushes out an attitude of gratitude. Worry focuses on what is lacking or what might not work out, rather than focusing on what is good, possible, and hopeful. Along these lines, Calvin Coolidge (U.S. President who had a lot to worry about) wrote, “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will turn into the ditch before they reach you.” If we are excessively concerned about problems before they actually begin to present themselves—we wind up in the “worry ditch” ourselves.
Worry and Inaction: John Lubbock wrote, “A day of worry is more exhausting than a day of work.” By definition, worry implies that while emotional “calories” are being burned, no solution-focused action is taking place. If I am worrying this means that I am repeatedly thinking (in a troubled and unproductive way) about something, but I am not doing anything about the problem. It is true that a small dose of worry (concern) can be helpful if it moves us to anticipate difficulties and then take concrete (real) action. But, as Pat Schroeder (congressional representative from Colorado) stated, “A person cannot wring their hands and roll up their sleeves at the same time.” Often we become seduced by and habituated to our worry. We come to believe that somehow worry and the mere thought of doing something demonstrate our sincerity. As we worry we seem to tell ourselves, “It must be obvious that I am serious about this problem because I am thinking so much about it in such a troubled and upsetting way.” Yet, thought and worry are worth little if they do not translate into action.
The Physical and Mental Cost of Worry: Worry is very costly to our physical and mental health. Worry leads the mind and body to enter a state of chronic overdrive. As we consistently focus our minds and hearts on anxiously considering “what might happen next,” we move into a state of sustained physical arousal and emotional upset. Consequently, anxiety and panic often accompany worry. Further, chronic worry often interferes with mood (depression and anxiety), disrupts sleep and rest, hampers gastro-intestinal functioning (appetite, digestion, nausea), and upsets general well being (headaches, sweating, shortness of breath, trembling, tics, skin disorders). Chronic worry and stress can also lead to disrupted metabolic functioning (increased sugar levels and elevated triglycerides [fats]).
Worry is Repetitive, Redundant, and Unproductive: Worry is the process of thinking about something over and over again with no solution or resolution. Worry is built upon a foundation of overpracticed, and rehearsed thoughts. As the habit of worry is practiced—over time the associated thoughts and beliefs become stronger, more automatic, and more convincing. Worry largely focuses upon what we cannot control or directly influence. It is also true that worry is almost exclusively self-focused and usually puts “me” at the center. Worry is only helpful and adaptive when it moves us to reconsider and reframe a situation and then take action. Thinking the same concerning thought over and over again (this is worry) will not help. Worry may be helpful as a temporary and time limited motivator to activate change. But this change must lead to decisive action and a decision to no longer worry about the matter.
Worry Competes with a Spiritual Perspective: For the person who has an active relationship with God, worry is the opposite of trusting Him. The only sound spiritual remedy for worry is to pray–to honestly and transparently express to God all of your worries, troubles, fears, and concerns. Ask God for His gracious help and guidance and be on the lookout for how He might intervene. Ask Him for patience, strength, and endurance that you might move through the situation in a God honoring way. It is possible that His intervention may not be focused on changing the circumstances that you find worrisome. Rather, God may be much more interested in changing and maturing you (into a person more like His Son) than in changing your circumstance.
From a Christian perspective, it could be said that worrying is basically a way of thinking and believing which suggests that somehow we fundamentally control our lives and what happens around us. Worry is a fretful and fear-based way of seeing and understanding the future. The Bible is God’s inspired Word about life and our relationship with Him. Not surprisingly, God knows that we struggle with fears and worries. I have selected a few passages in which the Bible specifically addresses the matter of worry.
- Matthew 6:27-30–In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds His listeners that God cares for temporary creatures including the flowers of the field and the birds of the air—so doesn’t it stand to reason that He will also care for us (eternal creatures). He closes this section by reminding His listeners that worry and anxious thoughts reap no benefits and that one’s life is not lengthened through worry. So, trust in God’s faithful love and put the weight of your worry and concern on Him.
- Philippians 4:6-7–Paul exhorts his readers to take their worry and anxiety to God. When we go to God with our concerns, troubled thoughts, and upset feelings, He promises to provide us with peace (in our hearts and minds) that is greater than any peace or assurance that we could know on our own. It is a peace that “surpasses all understanding and will guard and our hearts and minds.” God’s peace is the antidote for worry.
- 1st Peter 5:6-7–Peter reminds us that we are to humble ourselves before God (reminding ourselves that we are not the general managers of the universe) and “cast all our anxieties upon Him–because He cares for us.”
Reducing Worry: Although chronic worry may be a serious challenge for you—you are not helpless and without options. You can take action and push against your tendency to worry. Below are some suggestions you can employ to recapture your life from the habit of worry. Through reflection, deep thought, and prayer—trace the actual source of your worry. Determinedly pursue the answer to this question, “What is really bothering me–what is the specific source of my worry?” You should be able to clearly and succinctly summarize your key worry in a sentence or two.
Breakdown and Address Your Worries: Your worries can seem like a mountain that is built of a tangled mass of fear and anxiety. Breakdown and dissect this mountain of worry and specifically list (in written form) what is troubling you.
- Observe your tendency to worry and catch it early. Become aware of your tendency to worry. Monitor and notice the nature and pattern of your worrying. When do you tend to worry? What is the content of your worry? What do you do with your worry?
- Count your worries. Using a tally sheet keep track of how often you worry each day. Carry the tally sheet with you and make a notation each time you worry. Look for patterns and tendencies.
- Focus on the moment and your immediate environment. Worry targets the future. To counteract worry focus on what is happening now and not what may happen in the future.
- Limit your worrying to a “worry period.” Don’t allow worry to “leak” across your day. If you let it, worry can occur in any situation and at any time. So, limit your worry to a specific place and during a specific time each day. For instance, you might establish a twenty-minute period each day in which you do nothing but worry. Select a time to worry (but not near your bedtime) and choose a unique location set aside for your worry sessions. This should be a place where you will do nothing else but worry. During this “worrying period” you are to give your full and undivided attention to serious worry. Since you are allowing yourself time to aggressively worry—determine not to let worry creep into the other portions of your day.
- Postpone worries to your “worry period.” Jot down your worries so you don’t forget them. But do not concentrate on your worries when they come to mind. Rather, save them for your “worry period.” During your “worry period” each day you can fret in a concentrated way and this might even lead to productive solutions.
- Put your worries in proper perspective. Do not allow yourself to distort or magnify your worries. Have your concerns be proportional to the importance of the issue.
- Attend to your internal conversations. As you worry, what are you saying to yourself? How do you talk to yourself? Is your internal dialogue helping you remain calm and solution focused or is your internal chatter agitating and unnerving? Are your self-statements based in reality or are they exaggerated and distorted?
- If you are going to worry than you might as well consider the worst possible outcome. Ironically, worry can often be relieved when we allow our fears to reach their final and ultimate conclusion. Ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that could happen if my worry comes true? And if that happens—then what? And then what after that.” Allow yourself to let the imagined fear completely play out. Often times the worst case scenario is not as terrible as we imagined.
- Attend to your health and self-care. Get consistent and adequate sleep. Exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet. Taking care of yourself, physically and psychologically, is a great defense against worry.
Counteracting Worry: It seems that there are at least three ways to counteract worry.
First, we can change how we think, believe, and approach situations. We can quiet our hearts and minds, foster an attitude of thankfulness, and focus on what is good. We can remind ourselves of how blessed we are and how God’s grace and kindness is upon us. We can build an ability to tolerate uncertainty and we can choose to be content and satisfied even when all things are not as we would choose them to be. We can decide to put our trust in God and not in ourselves or our circumstances.
Second, we can change our behavior. I can counteract worry through physical exercise. I can choose to “spend” myself physically—to push and stretch myself both figuratively and literally. I can get outside and appreciate the natural beauty around me. I can clean-up my daily diet and eating habits. I can linger over and allow myself to really enjoy daily, simple pleasures.
Third, choose your friends and associates wisely. Although your close friends do not control your behavior—they do have great influence over how you think and feel. If you want to be less of a worrier you will need to spend less time with fellow worriers. You will need to actively and intentionally seek out friends and colleagues who are decidedly hopeful, optimistic, and action-oriented. You will need to break the habit of engaging in worry-focused conversations
Relaxation Exercises: Many clients have found that progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a helpful antidote to worry. PMR is the process of deliberately tensing and relaxing specific muscle groups. PMR allows a person to distinguish between their relaxed and calm state as opposed to a tense and anxious state. PMR also incorporates the exercise of deep diaphragmic breathing in which a person focuses on deeply inhaling and exhaling. During PMR a person may also repeat calming statements while inhaling and exhaling. From a Christian perspective, this could also be an exercise of speaking scriptural/theological truth to yourself and inviting His Spirit to calm and soothe your soul. In the breathing process a person might also imagine a relaxing scene or location. A person might reflect upon and recite a passage of scripture focusing on God’s love, grace, and care for us.
Don’t Worry About Worrying: So, if worry and fretfulness are challenges for you—I encourage you to take action. Consider some of the suggestions above and start to make changes somewhere. Be thoughtful, mindful, and plan ahead. But, don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Do not let the troubles of tomorrow steal the joys of today. Worry that does not lead to action is wasted. Remind yourself that your scope of influence and control is limited. Change and improve what you can, but also recognize that many objects of your concern and worry are beyond your direct influence. Also remember that many of the issues over which we most worry are situations that will never come to pass. Lastly, we have a loving and gracious God who knows our fragilities and struggles. He knows that we become overly focused on possible threats and calamities. He asks us to come to Him with our burdens and trust Him–to rest in Him.