Pain is inevitable, worry is optional

It is impossible to laugh and be worried at the same time. We can cultivate joy while we learn to take  ourselves less seriously.

It is impossible to laugh and be worried at the same time. We can cultivate joy while we learn to take
ourselves less seriously.

by Wendy Boorn — 

It has been said that “worrying is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it gets you nowhere.”

Anxiety is an epidemic in today’s unpredictable times. Whether concerns are about unstable weather patterns and the effects of climate change, terrorist attacks, the polarity in Congress, political unrest around the world, high unemployment rates, or the lack of civility and connection related to the widespread use of social media, people everywhere are worried.

Physicians are writing unprecedented numbers of prescriptions for anti-anxiety drugs. Addictions, which are maladaptive coping responses to overwhelming emotions, are at an all-time high. People are desperate to escape the uncomfortable and even paralyzing feelings that accompany their worries. Most believe they have no choice but to suffer.

This conviction about the inevitability of fretting is simply not true. Just because worrying is normal does not mean it is inescapable. Surveys indicate that 85 percent of those things people worry about have positive outcomes and, of the 15 percent that do not, people handle 80 percent of those situations better than they thought they would. While worrying is a normal response to anxiety, it is not unavoidable.

The following are some tools people can learn to help them tame their worry beasts:

1.  Recognize that worrying is a symptom of anxiety. Many people think their worries serve some useful purpose — to express love, solve problems or stay close to loved ones. On the contrary, most worry is destructive to self and others.

2. Learn to distinguish between productive and unproductive worry. Worrying is an adaptive behavior that evolved to help our ancient ancestors stay alert and ready to defend their families from predators. Staying on guard was a matter of life and death. Today, while we still carry that adaptation in the primitive part of our brains, seldom do the things we worry about require such vigilance.

Productive worry calls for action, while unproductive worry is

an endless feedback loop, consisting of all the what-ifs and worst-case scenarios we can imagine. If no action is called for, it is best to work on letting go.

3. Develop boundaries and limits for worrying time. The idea here is to recognize when we worry and then to take responsibility for whether and what we will worry about and for how long.

Tools include the following:

  • Compartmentalize — Choose healthy distractions from worrying, such as working, running errands or reading a book and put the worries aside for the time being.
  • Set time limits — We can set aside one 30-minute period per day during which to do all of our worrying. When we catch ourselves obsessing at other times, we can simply say, “I will deal with this during my worry time, not now,” and then go do something else.
  • Use a Letting Go/God Box — Using any container with an opening, we can write our concerns down and place the paper in the box as a symbolic way of letting go and turning over our worries to a Higher Power.

4. Discern what we can control from what we cannot. Although realizing that we have no control over anyone but ourselves can at first be terrifying, ultimately this truth is freeing. And, even for non-religious people, the Serenity Prayer can offer guidance in discernment: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

5. Focus on what we want to happen, rather than on that which we fear. Anxiety and its cousin worry focus on what can go wrong in the future, and often what we fixate on is what we draw to us. It is said that worrying is praying for that which we do not want. The more we practice staying in the here and now, the calmer we will be. Meditation and yoga are paths to the present. In addition, regularly setting our intentions for what we would like to see happen is a positive and proactive antidote to chronic worry.

6. Discover how to laugh at ourselves with kindness and humility. It is impossible to laugh and be worried at the same time. We can cultivate joy while we learn to take ourselves less seriously. Becoming an expert at not worrying is a journey, not an event, and patience helps. Developing the ability to observe our behavior and interrupt our worries with wry smiles and humble laughter goes a long way toward lightening our load.

Perhaps Mark Twain best summed it up when he mused: “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

 

Wendy Boorn, M.C., L.P.C., is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in relationship, parenting, grief and spiritual issues. She is the author of I Thought I’d Be Done by Now: Hope and Help for Mothers of Adult Children Searching for Peace. www.MothersofAdultChildren.com or 602-285-0990.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 32, Number 4, August/September 2013.

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