What Me Worry? Why we do it and what we get out of it.
If there were a Richter scale for worry, most of us would be off the charts. All of us right now have plenty to worry about—maintaining a roof over our heads and our health, paying for our next meal or medications, holding down a job and keeping our businesses afloat, educating our kids, dealing with isolation, facing climate change, just to name a few.
We all worry from time to time. But we contend that worry is on a continuum. Some people have a small helping of worry and others cannot let go of the worry buffet. The small helping worriers ruminate, rationalize about a situation they cannot control or might never happen, and the worry abates. It escalates from there to the chronic types who cannot get enough. Something always seems to be wrong, no matter how right things appear initially. The worries pile up like too much food on a plate, and yet these worriers keep going back for more. This degree of worry can pull you down like intense gravity.
Margaret’s late husband was a chronic and classic worrywart with thought processes of what ifs. He’d worry whether the car would have enough gas to get from point A to point B even if the tank were half full, if the kids would be warm enough going off to school in their down jackets, if the garbage would be picked up before the racoons got into it, if frying something in grease would cause the house to catch on fire, if Margaret would be safe driving in certain neighborhoods, and if their daughter would be fine at camp, and on and on.
We’re not talking about an obsessive-compulsive personality, although those with this disorder often have the worry syndrome. Margaret’s late husband was able to let himself off the hook occasionally, and it did not interfere with his daily life. However, the worry was always hanging in the air like a heavy fog.
Barbara’s mother has seemed to look for things to worry about by making assumptions (see our blog on this topic, Dec. 25, 2020) such as would so and so be upset with her if they didn’t like a gift or maybe didn’t receive it (tracking nowadays can end that worry), weren’t invited to some family event or if someone didn’t like a restaurant choice she had picked out. She also has worried realistically about several family members’ and friends’ surgery and offered prayers, and when anyone was a tad late. Granted, there was an endless supply of issues to fret over, and no sooner was one problem resolved than she focused on another. Barbara and her daughters have joked that her worrying is like oxygen we need to breathe.
Many of us worried about the recent Presidential election, no matter who our candidate was. Some worry was certainly legitimate but what could we do except talk about it on Zoom gatherings. But what does worry really get us? There must be a payoff, right? As Barbara’s younger daughter, a child psychologist says, “Worry is a wasted emotion.” Yet, we continue to do it and expend energy.
We also realize that worry gets you nothing but angst, bad dreams, sleepless nights that may result in a multitude of health problems, sometimes binge eating or no eating and too much valuable real estate in our heads about concerns we can’t control.
Can’t we just say to our worried brains: STOP!? That’s a little like saying to a person who is overweight, “Just go on a diet.” It’s not that easy. And, to make matters even more complicated, worry is genetic. There is an actual worry gene; some unfortunates are hardwired to worry.
According to an article in the Wall Street Journal newspaper, “When Fretting Is in Your DNA: Overcoming the Worry Gene” by Melinda Beck (Jan. 15, 2008) “Researchers at Yale have identified a gene mutation for ‘rumination’ -- the kind of chronic worry in which people obsess over negative thoughts. It's a variation of a gene known as BDNF that's active in the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in thinking and memory.”
Michael Feeley, a contributor to HuffPost.com, wrote another article about worry, “Where Does it Get You?” (Dec. 6, 2017). He says, “There's an old English proverb my great aunt Betty used to say to me when I was a kid because she knew I worried a lot... about school and getting good grades, being liked, how I looked and what I'd do with my life: ‘Worrying is like sitting in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but it doesn't get you anywhere.’ Projecting and worrying pulls you right out of the present. The past is done and finished. The future hasn't happened yet. It's out of your hands. So -- why worry? ...it doesn't get you anywhere," he adds.
If Worry is Genetic, can we Stop Ourselves from Worrying?
Therese J. Borchard, associate editor of PsychCentral.com, quotes Sir Winston Churchill in an article, “How to Stop Worrying about Worry” (July 8, 2018), “Churchill who battled plenty of demons, once said, ‘When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.’”
Here are some strategies we’ve come up with to gain control over our worries and help erase them from our hard drives:
Reframe the worry and acknowledge it as such—it’s worry. “What me worry?” (a phrase associated with Mad magazine and its cartoon cover boy Alfred E. Neuman). Yes, I do worry, and I’ll label it as such. As Tv’s Dr. Phil often says, you can’t change a behavior until you recognize it. That’s the first step.
Self-heal and give yourself some TLC. Pretend it’s pain, psychic pain if you will—and it is painful for it causes your brain to go on overdrive. Perhaps, you get stomachaches or headaches from worry. Instead of taking an aspirin or antiacid, sluffing it off and living with it, tend to it. Think of this image: shampooing your hair and saying at the same time: I’m gonna wash that worry right out of my head. Scrub away. Also, there is always medication for anxiety.
Divert your thinking to something positive or tangible. If you’re thinking, “I hope my daughter made it safely to camp for the summer, but oh my God what if there’s an accident?” shift to a positive action: “Oh, the lawn needs mowing (worry), and I think I’ll do it now.” Once you mow and see the results, you’ll feel so much better. One less thing to worry about, right? Sure, unless you worry next about having to water the lawn, feed it with fertilizer and worry that it will never rain soon enough so you don’t have to worry about a huge water bill.
Consider professional help. Get it if a constant stream of worries starts to cripple how you lead your life. Talk to friends; talk to a therapist. Again, there are medications available to calm down the worry, and there are cognitive behavioral therapies that can help to retrain your thinking.
Try to use laughter. This may be one of the best and cheapest medicines. Laugh at yourself when the worries don’t make sense—whether you’ll be invited to a certain gathering when gatherings return. Either you will or won’t and often you can’t do anything to change that. So, what if you’re not. Maybe, it would be a boring evening but don’t start worrying about that. Or laugh at yourself if you worry that few will like the chocolate cake you made for a pot-luck dinner. Maybe, they’re all allergic to gluten and won’t be able to eat it. Again, they will or won’t, and who cares? Next time you’ll know. And by the way you were kind to make such a delicious dessert in any case.
Learn a lesson. When all’s said and done, we can learn from our worries if we keep track. What causes us the most worry and why. Margaret has worried that she won’t find her way since she thinks she’s directionally challenged. One time she did a trial run to be sure. Barbara worries she’ll forget an ingredient when baking since she did that one time; of course, that’s why the cake didn’t rise! She now takes out everything and measures, then slowly incorporates and doesn’t talk on the phone or pay attention to a TV show when mixing all together.
Is Worry all Bad & a Complete Waste of Time?
There are those who say that worry can be a positive trait that makes someone more productive. Ironic, isn’t it? Carl Erickson on his website GreatNotBig.com posits the theory in the context of people with whom he works and concludes that there is healthy worry. In a piece, “In praise of the worry gene,” (April 7, 2014), he writes that people with healthy worry genes are mindful of the present and anticipate the future. “Worry helps when it pushes the worrier to take action and find a solution to the problem.” It’s the old turn the negative thoughts into positive productive action. Here are some of the positives of worrying he cites. Worriers are “generally aware and mindful and on time; anticipate possible problems; take smart precautions; have a backup plan for when things don’t go as you expect; anticipate not just react…”
When you think about various situations and problems, you've worried about in your life, realize that somehow you always get through them. Look at the pattern or the big picture. That’s one way to end worry—by trusting that things tend to work out for the best.