Most of us, if asked to list our top ten worries, could go from zero to ten in a matter of minutes. Some of us overachieving worriers could probably even accomplish the task in mere seconds. Apprehensions about relationships, health, jobs, money, children and safety in the world around us might headline our lists of concerns.
Why do we allow ourselves to spend so much time doing something that gives us so little in return? It often seems that we believe worrying gives us a certain level of protection against bad things happening. Although not grounded in logic, we become afraid that if we let our guard down, misfortune will make a beeline for us. So we fall into a habit of worrying about things, many of which are mostly or completely out of our control.
When we talk about worry, it makes sense to keep in mind the important difference between helpful preparation and overthinking without purpose. I grew up with a father who was actually pretty good at both. I know it was genuinely challenging for him to stop worrying, whether it be about teenagers driving, paying the bills, the dog wandering away, or a forgotten curling iron burning down the house. At times he took helpful preparation steps, such as packing blankets, shovels and extra winter gear in case we were stranded in a snowstorm. But he also worried incessantly about that snowstorm even happening, and it directly impacted his ability to enjoy spending time with the family he so sincerely wanted to protect.
If we find ourselves worrying about something, we can look for ways to direct that energy toward sensible actions that can make a positive difference rather than excessively worrying. The more we are able to do this, the more we can truly be present with others and appreciate our interactions with them.
Fretting about something can make us feel as though we have already gone through a difficult situation because of the amount of time we spend anticipating the worst. The worrying and “what ifs” can almost become real to us and, in some cases, may be even worse than reality. We might worry about a negative review from a boss, a bad grade in school, the results of a medical test or whether or not someone is angry with us. At times, we play the entire negative scenario out in our minds, concentrating more on what we dread than on what we can do to make things better.
I saw this when a friend started worrying after her son in high school received a bad grade. Soon she was imagining him dropping out, without job or college prospects, and living in her basement. But what has a more helpful effect – spending all that time imagining scary scenarios that have yet to happen or taking steps to improve the situation? Meeting with teachers, hiring a tutor, setting up a structured homework schedule, all of these would make for a much more productive use of time. When we move into an action phase, we allow ourselves to reduce our worries and increase our optimism. We can direct our energy into things over which we have much more control.
We have often heard the conventional wisdom that “most of what we worry about never even happens.” Although it is hard to pinpoint actual numbers, we can all give examples of what we worry about not only failing to materialize, but something else we had not anticipated taking its place.
Recently I had to take my daughter to an airport an hour-and-a-half away for a flight back to college. With several inches of snow in the forecast, I was worried about driving (see influential worrywart father description above). The drives to and from the airport turned out all right, but the snow increased in intensity as she waited for her flight, which turned out to be cancelled altogether. I was so focused on safe transportation to the airport, I had not allowed for the potential that we might need to find an entirely different way for her to get back to school. We simply cannot anticipate all of a situation’s different possibilities, and we also can never get back the time spent worrying about the ones that never materialize.
We are human and our thoughts will sometimes naturally wander into worry territory. But we can help ourselves if we recognize that some of our day-to-day worries can be reduced by taking charge of how we handle these tendencies. Set a short time aside to list your everyday worries. Make stars next to the ones that are within your control. Of those, list things you can do to prepare for the concern and that might actually affect the outcome. Then, take a deep breath, picture yourself letting go, and take a look at the beauty in the people and the natural world around you. Try to remember that once you have packed your winter emergency kit, you deserve time off from your worries to go outside and play in the snow.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 and is an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.