I used to be a worrier, playing out infinite possibilities in my head regarding daily scenarios. But as the uncertainties in my life have increased exponentially, the amount of worry has significantly decreased. If I were a sage or a wise person, I’d tell you that I’ve learned to accept everything in my life and that’s why I don’t worry more frequently. I’d also be a liar. What I have done is learned to better handle worry. That’s not to say that I don’t do it; it’s to say that I’ve learned to worry better. Here's how.
1. Learn to see worry for what it is. Webster’s Dictionary defines worry as mental distress or agitation resulting from concern usually for something impending or anticipated. I don’t think Mr. Webster takes it far enough. I once heard a pastor say that anger is frozen fear. I think worry is frozen fear, too. For me, once I distilled that fear down, I realized that my most basic fear was about not being in control.
At its most primal level, this is an irrational fear. Life is always changing. We can’t stop or control that. But even though I can intellectually understand this, it doesn’t change my desire for control.
So, I control what I can. When you get into a power struggle with a two-year-old over whether or not they can have a cookie, the crux of the issue is often control, not the cookie. The recommended advice is to offer the child simple choices so they can still feel like they are in control: “Do you want a banana or an apple?”
The next time you’re in a situation where you feel like you have no control, find a way to give yourself some, even if it means treating yourself like a tantruming toddler. Recently, I showed up for an appointment that unbeknownst to me had been canceled, which was exasperating. I stewed on it a bit and then I decided I had two choices: I could be grateful I’d spent that extra time with one of my kids or I could be thankful that I didn’t have to sit at the doctor’s office with one of my kids.
2. Learn to see worry for what it does. Worry is a consumer of emotional energy, not a supplier. It takes from us; it does not give. Problem-solving, however, is productive and energy-giving.
Don’t just dwell in the land of ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’ as that will only add to your anxiety. If you’re stressed out about work or money, for example, treat the situation like an agenda item. Add brainstorming to your 'to-do' list. Give the issue serious time and consideration.
3. Ask yourself, ‘Do I need more or less?’ Often when we feel anxious or uneasy about something it’s because there’s an unknown component. When you start to worry, ask yourself: ‘Would more or less information be helpful in this situation?’ Then do accordingly.
If you’re headed to the doctor’s office and are concerned about the diagnosis, googling your symptoms for possible diseases may only increase your anxiety. So in this scenario, you need less information. Don’t research jungle diseases or rare conditions. Operate on a need-to-know basis.
If, however, you’re feeling anxious about the doctor’s appointment and you’re concerned not only about the diagnosis but also the logistics of getting there, then you need more information. Figure out your route and the parking situation beforehand to reduce the unknowns.
4. Heave it up to lay it all down. For many people, their biggest worry is the thing that is too awful to contemplate. It’s the part of our mind that we cordon off with yellow caution tape and flashing danger signs because just getting near the edges makes us jittery.
But sometimes it is helpful to go to that horrible place because it will give you tangible steps you can take that will ease your mind. Is your worst of the worst worry about losing your spouse? It’s an understandably horrible imagining. If, however, it prompts you to make changes regarding life insurance or your Will or your job marketability, then you may have achieved some lightness from going to this dark place.
5. Name your worry. Your worry might already have a name (spouse, boss, parent, child), so you don’t have to give it an actual name, unless that helps. But when your thoughts drift into worry, consciously note it. Each time you find yourself worrying say, “This is worrying.” It’s surprising how frequently our thoughts can weigh us down without our even realizing it.
There’s a mindfulness exercise that tells you to pay attention to the present moment each time you sit down. It’s hard to do because for most able-bodied people, sitting down is one of the things we do on autopilot. Worrying often works the same way.
When you notice that you’re worrying, try replacing it with something else: Prayer, singing, listing something you’re grateful for.
6. Remember that not all hard things are bad and that good outcomes can come from bad circumstances. When something difficult happens, instinct tells us to throw up our hands and yell, “No good came come from this.” And at first, that may be true. Hard things are hard. Grief is grief and pain is pain. We don’t have to be stoic or brave.
But just because something starts out poorly does not mean that it will remain that way. Also, just because we perceive a situation as hopeless does not mean that it is a permanent condition. Hope can be learned. Yes, you read that right: hope can be learned. Brené Brown, researcher and author of Daring Greatly, says that hope is not an emotion but that “hope is a function of struggle.” And according to a New Yorker article, How People Learn to Become Resilient, by Maria Konnikova, resilience is also learned. That’s the good news: Hope and resilience are traits we can all form. The researchers have the data to prove it.
Here’s the bad news: Difficult experiences will be our teachers. We may not be able to prevent difficulties in life, but we can learn from those challenges. That should give us all one less thing to worry about!
Jessica writes about the art of everyday living. She has been published on Upworthy, Parent.co, and Mothers Always Write. This article originally appeared on Parent.co/6-practical-ways-to-better-handle-worry/. Reprinted with permission.
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