constant worry

The Power of “What If”

Oh, worry, my old friend. If there were worry olympics, I coulda been a contender. I am GREAT at worry. A natural!

And worry LOVES company! As long as I was worrying, I’d always have someone to talk to. But, my conversations would be exhausting, and my life would be joyless.

We certainly have the option to feeling anxious or concerned right now- If we wanted to, we could worry ourselves sick about the state of the world: the handling of the crisis, the mental health of our friends and families stuck at home with only the black hole of the internet to occupy them, and the danger experienced by our heroes in scrubs.

Worry is is a verb that means to be consumed by the anticipation of negative emotion.

It’s all about the potential for future calamity. Worry is what happens when you allow the thought that you might feel a negative emotion in the future to consume you; to feel that possibility run away from you and gain a life of its own.

Worry is NOT that feeling you get when dealing with something bad that is happening- if it’s happening, it isn’t worry. It’s anger, disappointment, fear, betrayal, or any of those other super-real emotions. Emotion is legit and absolutely deserves our attention. “Try not to worry” doesn’t mean “try not to feel bad.” But it does mean, try to wait for the need to arise before you feel badly.

I remember the first time a smug personal development person told me that “worry was an indulgent choice” that I could choose not to make.

Rage. Rage is what I felt.”HOW DARE YOU, MY WORRY IS REAL AND IT MATTERS AND I CAN’T HELP IT, ANYWAY!”

Turns out that all three of those statements were false:

  • Philosophically, “real” means relating to something as it “is” not as it may be. With worry, it’s all about the “what ifs” and “yeah, buts.” (I recognize that real can also mean “not imagine or supposed” and in that sense my concern was super real… but it’s still not about something that tangibly exists in the now.)
  • I can say with absolutely certainly that my worry didn’t “matter.” Most of the thing I worried about never happened… And yet…. that anticipatory feeling of doom killed at least as much joy as if the event had happened. We just go ahead and kill our joy, even in the absence of any “real” concern. And, worst of all, when the bad thing did happen, the worry didn’t blunt the pain or lessen the impact. That’s a terrible bargain.
  • And could I help it? As much as I railed against it, I’ve learned over time that most of the time I can disengage from worry. Not always and not perfectly, but often and imperfectly.
    If the future hardship was less than catastrophic (which is often a choice I make in the framing of it) and there’s at least SOMETHING going on in the present that I can be engaged with (also driven by my own choice to see it or create it), then I can displace worry with engagement in the present moment.

The solution to worry, much like the solution to fear, lies in the current moment. When my mind wants to obsess about a potential calamity, I force* my mind to recognize OR CREATE a present moment occurrence to occupy it. Currently, when my mind wants to give into hyper-vigilant worry (my default response to uncertainty and vulnerability), I write. In fact, I’m writing The ^Almost Daily Catalyst to give my mind something to chew on during it’s free time, instead of worry about the state of my world.

What do you have in your back pocked to occupy your brain when it’s tempted to worry? Do you have a good book, a favorite movie, a great soundtrack, a garden to weed, or a basement to sort through? Are you writing or drawing or playing the drums?

I’d love to hear your strategies. 

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*PS- I am not some kind of robot who can force her brain to do impossible things. Some days my brain says F-You to my efforts and sinks right down into worry. Yesterday for example, I spent hours lying in my bed. I stayed there and stared and sort-of slept and whatever else I needed to do. When I felt some life-force return I got back into the current moment. My strategy yesterday was to dig up weeds in my flower garden for a couple of hours.

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About the Author Amanda

Amanda Crowell, PhD is a cognitive psychologist obsessed with how people make change. She is best known for translating cutting edge research into practical strategies that can be used right away.

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