By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
I am no stranger to worry. In fact, I was pretty much raised on it: love, chicken soup and worry. Suffice it to say that worrying is pretty much in my DNA. After a few decades of counseling others from all walks of life, I realize that I am not alone. It’s human nature to worry. If you’re a parent, I’m pretty sure it’s in the job description. Having spent a lot of time lost in the depths of worry and its more intense form, anxiety, I have often wondered if worry is actually useful.
We all have our share of things to worry about—from personal to global issues. But there is an important difference between worrying and thoughtful planning. Worry is about focusing on troubling things that could happen but for the most part, worry does not help a troubling situation. Thoughtful planning and action can help. Sometimes, asking someone else for help can help. Sometimes deciding to let go and focus on the present moment can help. Sometimes asking something bigger than our minds—like whatever made the oceans, rainforests, flowers, snowflakes, and babies—can help.
It’s not always easy to let go of our worrisome thoughts. Some are stronger and more convincing than others. But if we can stay committed to living more in the present moment instead of believing every thought that pops up in our minds, it can really make a difference.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is from the author Eckhart Tolle. He says, “Worry pretends to be necessary but serves no useful purpose.” It sure does pretend to be necessary sometimes! In my counseling practice, In my therapy practice, I work with people who worry all the time. When we take a deeper look at their relationship to worry, I often notice a theme. A lot of people think that their worry somehow protects them from or prepares them for painful situations that may or may not happen in the future. But does it really? If someone worries that others will judge or criticize them, how does their worry actually help? How does constantly worrying that one might die prematurely or contract a fatal illness prevent that from happening? One theory I often hear is, “If I think about it in advance, I’ll be more prepared if or when it actually happens.” But is that true?
Worry does not prepare us for the future. It robs us of the present. Worrying is like trying to prevent something hard from happening in the future while causing something hard to happen in the present— worry! Worry is hard work and it’s stressful. We might tell ourselves that the right amount of worrying will help us get through an eventual disaster or hardship, but worry doesn’t have that kind of power. Now, I’m not talking about realistic preventative measures, like getting timely medical check-ups or going to a couples’ counselor if you’re worried about your relationship. If the weather channel is predicting a big storm, loading up on groceries and batteries might help, but worrying won’t. Unless you’re taking steps to actively do something about an issue or event that you’re worried about, worry is not really helpful.
So what does worry do? Worry makes our bodies feel as if the circumstance we are worried about are actually happening when in most cases it’s not. After experiencing my first big California earthquake, I found myself worrying frequently about there being another one. Every little jolt, door slam, foot stomp, or thunderstorm sent me into a tizzy. Not to mention the quiet times my mind decided to get a jump on things and just plain worry without any evidence whatsoever! I realized after a while that if another actual earthquake happened, I wouldn’t have time to worry. I would head to the nearest door or react in whatever way I managed to at the time. Worrying now won’t help me then. Canned goods and bottled water might. So, I began to thank my mind for sharing and trying to anticipate and prepare for every possible future catastrophic quake. I began to reassure myself that I was actually safe in the moment. And I continued my resolve to spend more time in reality and deal with hard times when they actually arrived, rather than create them in a false attempt to prevent and prepare for them.
In recent years, life gave my worry some concrete evidence to sink its teeth into. My precious 85-year-old father began periodically fainting. Not a big fan of hydrating, the man plays tennis every day in hot weather and began fainting, or as he calls it, “lay down.” My worry could have a field day with this one, especially given that my parents live thousands of miles away from me. One particularly memorable day, after a recent episode of “laying down,” I tried calling to check in with my dad. There was no answer on his or my mom’s cell phones, and the home phone was busy… for several hours. My worry began to have a feast. I’m talkin’ pull up a chair. Until I decided to practice what I preach. I asked myself, If my dad fainted, how is my agonizing over it going to help him? If something horrible actually happens, how about if I deal with it then instead of creating it in my mind now and dealing with it twice the amount of time?
It turns out my dad had hung up the phone incorrectly, which was why it was busy. When I finally reached him, he was eating ice cream and watching a western. Note to self: We cannot prepare for the hardest parts of life, but we can sure ruin a perfectly good day by worrying about them! The episode with my dad reinforced this valuable lesson. We can deal with the challenging parts of life when they actually occur or we can deal with them in our minds constantly and also when they occur.
Even though worry feels like serious business, a sense of humor can help sometimes too. In a recent session with a client who was preparing to travel abroad for a few months, we discussed her fears about her upcoming trip. She was excited for the opportunity to travel but she was very worried about going off to a foreign country without her familiar support system. She said, “I’m worried that my anxiety will ruin my trip.” She then laughed and said playfully, “I’m worried about ruining my trip and I am actually ruining my day! I’m worried about being worried!”
Another client of mine with was facing a frightening medical procedure. She spent months worrying about how much the procedure would hurt and how long it would take to heal. She worried about having to go through it all again if her condition didn’t improve. The dreaded day finally came and went and she later told me that the procedure wasn’t nearly as bad as she had anticipated. She talked about how many months she spent worrying about the pain compared to how many moments the actual pain lasted and she was amazed. When she began to talk about how much time she’d “wasted” worrying, I told her that the time would not be a waste if she could use it as a reminder to worry less and stay more present the next time she was facing a scary life circumstance.
These days, there’s plenty of grist for the worry mill: terrorism, the economy, climate changes, to name a few. Personally, I could lock and load my worry full-time if I’m not careful, conscious, and in charge of who’s steering this tender ship. But I am. I realize every day that worrying about war, drought, floods, school shootings, or the health of my loved ones is not going to keep something really hard from happening. Worrying only makes my system feel like the hard things are happening now.
So, if you are a periodic or perpetual worrier, try asking yourself: Is this worry actually helping me or anyone else? Is there some action I could take to prepare for this worrisome possibility, or can I let go and let life do what it will do anyway (with or without my well-intentioned assistance)? Can I reassure myself that whatever happens, I will handle it, if and when it happens?
And then ever so gently, steer yourself back from the not now and into now.