As another school year has come to an end, I find myself needing to step back and take a deep breath. There have been so many things to juggle, with three young children, career, and finding a bit of time to take care of myself. The kids all have had so many different places to be, and there are so many things I want to do surrounding my professional life. Nevermind that the grass keeps telling me that it needs to be mowed, and the dog looks at me with sad eyes because she needs to play.
When life is this full (pretty much always!), I often find myself wondering whether I have forgotten something. I wake up in the morning and my mind automatically goes to a to-do list. Surrounding the to-do’s are worried thoughts about how I might actually be able to get it all done, and if I’ll get it right. But then, I’ll catch my mind wrapped up in the worry, and remember to breathe. I remember to be here in this moment, experiencing the end of the school year and the transition to summer. If I let myself be consumed with worry, I’ll miss these precious moments, and they will be gone. Of course, they will be gone whether I notice them or not, but I’d rather notice them and, even better, truly experience them.
I’m going to guess that something like this happens for you, whether you have children or not. There are so many details that can preoccupy us in life, and we can find ourselves consumed with these things in a way that takes away from enjoying life and being present for what really matters.
In my own journey towards learning to let go of worry, I’ve found it helpful to understand that our human minds are naturally prone to become tangled up in worry. Our brains were made to solve problems — this is what has allowed us to survive when we lacked other tools like fangs, claws, and the ability to run fast.
Solving problems is a good thing, right? It often is. But the catch is that the mind doesn’t seem to stop thinking about problems, even when they are already solved or even when they are unsolvable. The result is worry.
For people who struggle with anxiety, worry can be a constant companion. It’s the mental component of anxiety, and it typically involves a preoccupation with potential problems that could be lurking around the corner. It also preoccupies itself with problems that we have no control over.
One characteristic of worry is that it often features an overestimate of potential negative outcomes. For instance, someone might worry about a headache, and keep coming back to the thought that it could be something more serious. Or one might worry that if they don’t pick out the right outfit, they won’t be accepted into the group.
In fact, worries often tend to center around topics like health concerns and social status. Social status, in particular, can underlie other worries. For instance, if we worry a lot about money, it’s likely that the true fear is that we will be judged or not accepted if we don’t meet a certain standard of wealth or style.
So why is it so important to get better at dealing with worry? There are so many reasons. First, worry is a central feature of most anxiety disorders. Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder both feature worry as prominent symptoms. In fact, one of the main problems that my clients list as a reason they need help is a persistent worry they can’t seem to shake.
Worry causes our brains to send signals to the body to increase certain chemicals, preparing us for threats. Of course, we are not often fending off a real or current threat, but one that is created in our minds. Sometimes, our minds create beliefs about the world and our lives that might be far off from reality.
Over time, if worries persist, our body remains in a heightened state of arousal, which can result in various stress-related symptoms and disorders. Chronic pain, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, TMJ (jaw) disorders, and muscle tension are some common problems related to worry, just to name a few. As we know, the mind affects the body. This is true to a more significant degree than we ever imagined, as research is continually revealing.
On a more universal level, worry also keeps us from enjoying life. If we are tangled up with our worries, we are not really living in the moment, and we are not actually present for what is happening in front of us. This often comes up for special occasions — for example, you might become so wrapped up in whether all of the details about an event will fall into place that you forget to enjoy the party, the holiday, or the vacation. I’m sure we’ve all been there. I remember getting so worked up for my son’s first birthday party that I barely enjoyed it at all. It wasn’t until my third child that I was able to enjoy that first birthday party.
So what to do? First, I don’t recommend worrying about how you will ever get a handle on your worries. That just adds more fuel to the fire, but I’m guessing that’s where your mind might have just gone if you are anxiety-prone.
First, a key part of dealing with worry is being able to discern what is constructive thinking, and what is just plain worry. For most people, this line is blurry, and I certainly have a long way to go on this myself. If we can separate the two, we will be much better at seeing the worry for what it is, and letting go of it.
The first and most crucial step is to catch yourself worrying. There’s not much chance of changing something that you don’t even notice. Our mental habits become so ingrained and automatic that we don’t even notice them. To get you started, there are a couple of things that will help you to identify when you are caught up in worry.
One important clue is when you are not really paying attention to whatever is happening around you. For instance, you are at a ball game, but you are really a million miles away. Your spouse might ask you a question and get no response because you are really somewhere else. Be looking for these situations and then ask yourself where your mind is in that moment.
Another key signal is that you are starting to have physical symptoms of anxiety. There might be a tightness in your chest or your stomach might start to become unsettled. Use these physical signs of anxiety to alert you to what your mind is up to. It’s quite possible that it is thinking about potential problems.
It helps to tell the difference between constructive problem solving, versus churning over trivial details and potential negative outcomes. Constructive problem solving actually helps us navigate life stress, and helps us to achieve our goals. Worry just leaves us feeling bad, without getting us anywhere. The engineers out there might call this inefficient, because it uses energy and there is no gain.
To increase your ability to recognize worry, I recommend that you keep a journal or log of your worry habits. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but simply record when you worried and what you worried about. Through this process, you are learning more about your patterns and what your greatest concerns are. Perhaps it’s that you focus on financial issues, or that you tend to focus on health problems. Whatever the case, I promise you that learning to notice your thought patterns is a critical skill for mental health, as well as for productivity.
Understanding more about your worry and learning to catch yourself worrying is a great place to start. I’ll be writing soon about what to do when you catch yourself worrying in my next post on this topic, Dealing with Worry, Part 2.