Worry Worry Worry
In my last post I promised to get into more detail about dealing with the anxiety and worries connected to uncertainty. Now, worry is no fun. So then, why don’t we stop worrying? It seems pretty straightforward, on the surface of it. If you are tired of worrying about uncertainty — which I gotta think many people are in this COVID era — then just stop.
Except for many people, it’s not that easy.
To help solve the mystery of why it’s so darn hard to stop worrying, I’ll turn to a fellow Canuck, Dr. Michel Dugas. My patriotic heart swells with pride, as he is The Man with this stuff.
Why don’t we stop worrying? Dr. The Man explains that sometimes it’s because we believe worry is helpful and good.
Who wants to stop a good thing? The problem is, these beliefs are flawed. I touched on this very briefly in a previous post. Let’s take a deeper look at the five categories these beliefs fall into, along with the mistaken assumptions which make them hazardous to our mental health.
1. Worry helps me to solve problems.
Beliefs in this category assume that worrying will help to think of solutions to problems, improve awareness, prepare to face problems, or even prevent problems in the first place. Dr. Dugas suggests that while low levels of worry might help a bit, high levels of worry actually interfere with good problem solving. When we worry a lot, it’s hard to concentrate. We get bombarded with all the ways that solutions could fail. We ends up feeling overwhelmed, demoralized and stuck.
2. Worry motivates me.
I fall for this one fairly regularly. These worries assume that if I don’t worry, I’ll just sit on the couch. As Dr. D points out, this is a matter of substituting worry for caring about something. (Who worries about forgetting to watch their favourite show?) Just like the first category, high levels of worry actually interfere with motivation, because it floods us with negative emotion and racing negative thoughts. We end up wanting to lay on the couch more, not less.
I read something recently (wish I could remember where, so I could link to it) that said motivation is counter-intuitive. If we wait to feel motivated, we’re in trouble. Motivation actually follows action. The better way to motivate is just to get started on doing stuff. Feeling motivated will follow. Worrying involves sitting around, not doing stuff. So motivation doesn’t get a chance to build.
3. Worry protects me from negative emotions.
This category assumes that if I cause myself a little bit of pain, then it won’t hurt as much when (or if) the real pain comes along. I’m not kidding. Nobody thinks about it this way, of course, because that’s obviously ridiculous. If my finger gets cut off, would it hurt less if I cut my finger — just a little bit — ahead of time?
However, when we fall for this one, the beliefs are worded to sound more reasonable and convincing. We tell ourselves things like, “If I worry about my mom getting COVID-19, then I won’t feel as shocked, sad or guilty when it happens.” That actually sounds kind of sensible.
Except it won’t work. Not to mention, believing this puts you in a position where you constantly have to worry about terrible things, just in case. That’s a miserable way to live.
4. Worry prevents bad stuff from happening.
I know. This sounds like a belief in magic powers, which no reasonable person would think. (I’m not saying people who believe in magical powers are unreasonable, FYI. Rather, these folks can just skip worry and go right to using their magic powers. It’s the worry part which is unreasonable.)
Let me encourage you not to be too quick to scoff and say, “Oh come on! I don’t think I have magic powers!” As a psychologist friend explained to me years ago, this is a matter of repetition and reinforcement. For example, if I worry about a crash every time my kids ride the school bus, then each time they arrive home safely, I am rewarded. This happens hundreds of times over their school years. That’s a lot of reinforcement.
5. Worry proves I’m a good person.
These kind of beliefs assume that a positive quality – like caring – is shown by worrying. Who doesn’t have a granny, an auntie, or a mom whose job seems to be worrying about everyone in the family? (This is not a biologically female phenomenon, just to be clear.) The thing is, caring people are caring. Period. Worry really has nothing to do with it.
Back to the stopping part.
So unfortunately, just reading this will not suddenly stop all worrying for the rest of your life. I wish it was that simple.
If you want to stop worrying, you first need to stop the wind which fills the sails and keeps the worry boat plunging ahead.
Doing so requires being honest with yourself. Go through the 5 categories above and ask yourself how often you fall for these beliefs. Notice I did not say if. Should you answer “never” for all 5, let me gently suggest you probably didn’t think about it very hard and/or you may have a flair for self-deception.
Just about everyone has experienced one or more of these worry beliefs at some point. They are not a problem for everyone on the planet. The job is to honestly evaluate how much you subscribe to these beliefs. If it’s a lot; you have some work to do. That work involves developing the habit of catching yourself in the act, so to speak, of falling for these beliefs. After that, you work on getting good at debating them. If you need some help with that, I know a good therapist…
I’ll continue to walk through Dr. The Man’s nifty ideas, for the next couple of posts.