If you really (really, really) want to stop the worry monster, you have stop it at its source. If your brain jumped to your paycheck (or lack thereof), your husband, boss, mother, health or whatever is on your particular worry list, I have news for you….
Ultimate relief is not something you’ll find outside of yourself, because all worry is generated internally, from your thoughts. Yes, ultimately worry is something we generate inside ourselves based on false assumptions about what is real. Now if this is starting to sound weird, please, bear with me. There’s a payoff that is practical and doable. I promise!
1. Control equals safety? Not really.
Whether our worry is generalized or specific, it is generated from an underlying belief that we must control our world to be safe. By extension, we falsely believe that if we give an anticipated problem enough mental/emotional effort, we can actually change the course of events (thereby ensuring our safety). But stop and think. How much control so any of us actually have over the future? Other people? OURSELVES? If we are going to be brutally honest, the answer has to very “Very little.” That’s right, in the end, all any of us have any control over at all is ourselves, and even then we don’t do that good of a job! Control for safety is an illusion. Wash, rinse, repeat. Control for safety is an illusion. You can’t do it. No one can. I don’t care who they are or how smoking fabulous they believe themselves to be, but they can’t control the future any better than you or I.
You can’t control your teenage son or daughter when they are out of your sight. You can’t control your boss, or your bosses boss! You can’t control the economy, the weather, the neighbors annoying dogs, whether you’re going to get a flat tire, the price of oil, if your kids get picked on at school, or if your laptop crashes. Yes, you can do all the “right” steps to try and head off disasters, like buy AAA so you don’t have to change your own tire or keep your resume updated in case your employer decides to downsize….but you can’t stop life from happening.
So right now you’re thinking,”Ok, fine. I get it, but knowing isn’t helping. Thanks bunches.”
You are right; there’s more. Have you ever stopped to consider what exactly is behind the overwhelming need to try and control the future? If you are like me, you find a deep reservoir of FEAR. Fear that life will be painful, uncomfortable. Fear you won’t survive the heartbreak. Fear of the pain of loss. Fear of the feelings of sadness, disappointment, anger, shame. Fear you won’t survive. Fear you’ll end up living under a bridge. Fear you won’t find a way out. Fear people will shame you and laugh at you. Fear of your OWN judgement (WHY didn’t I do……?) Fear, fear, FEAR.
Well, no wonder we try and control the future. Who wants to face all THAT?! Well, here’s the dirty little secret: You’re going to have to deal anyway. Yep. There isn’t a damn thing you can do about it either. I’m not saying you can’t be proactive and head some bad things off. It’s smart to keep up the maintenance on your car and get AAA, make healthy food choices, take vitamins and exercise, save money for a rainy day, but we delude ourselves if we think we have the power to stop the drunk from getting into their car and smacking into someone on the freeway or that we can prevent our employer from shipping our job offshore if they can get the same work done for less. The point is that we only have very limited control over our lives and we drive ourselves crazy with worry trying to control what we really have no control over whatsoever. In short, in an effort to avoid pain, we only create more pain for ourselves in the present moment, and worse, reinforce the underlying fear that you can’t handle life. The simple fact is that you are already handling your life and probably doing a lot better job than you give yourself credit. The takeaway? Whatever is going to happen most likely will AND whatever it is, you are going to be fine. Or as John Lennon once famously said, “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” Truth.
2. Worry is a habit. Break it with love.
Stress eating. Too much television or internet time. Smoking. Sugar. Habits have staying power which is why they can be so vexing. Recent research indicates that habits become stronger due to a real or perceived payoff which reinforces the habit. It seems the the best way to break a habit is actually to weaken the neural pathway that is reinforced by the reward portion of the cycle and at the same time, add in the behavior that is healthy to replace it. In the case of emotional eating, get ALL the support you need and do everything you can to NOT eat that Snickers bar after a tough day at work. But worry? What’s the payoff? And what’s the alternative? I can only speak for myself, but for me the payoff *is* the frantically spinning hamster wheel. If I am SO obsessed over what I am worrying about, then I don’t have to deal with the reality of what I’m worrying about. Confused? Heh. I feel ya. It works like this: I’m worried some bad thing is going to happen and at the same time I’m frantically worrying, there is a part of me secretly hoping my worrying will work and I won’t have to face the BAD THING. At the same time, I am SO stressed out, my frontal cortex has pretty much shut down from the cortisol rush and I’m not able to think rationally about any possible solutions. The fear feeds on itself until the bad thing really does come to pass, at which point I’m so stressed out that my brain is engaged in full-blown catastrophic thinking and believes I actually predicted the bad thing and brought it on myself through some form of magical thinking. Gah! Is this making any sense whatsoever? Of course not! That’s why it’s called the hamster wheel…..or sometimes referred to as the downward spiral of doom. What to do? Although it seems counter-intuitive, what actually shuts down the hamster wheel and restores peace-of-mind is paying attention to your fear. I can hear you now: “WHAT? Ack NO!” Yes, pay attention. It’s the running away that creates even MORE fear. I use the following mantra which I picked up from some researchers who are a lot smarter than I. It goes like this…
First, take three deeeeeep breaths and then gently repeat to yourself over and over:
“Do not judge. (Yourself or others. Just gently stop.)
Minimize harm. (Only one cup of ice cream instead of a whole container? Win!)
Know this will pass. (Yes, it’s only temporary and if you hold on, you WILL feel better.)”
Repeat until the fear starts to subside. Generally, one of the above will “feel” more true. Try to compassionately look at whatever it is. The key? Compassion! You are doing the best you can. It’s all going to be okay in the end. Really. When I was (thankfully) misdiagnosed with an aggressive and fatal form of cancer, until I heard otherwise, I checked in with myself hourly and did the “breathe, breathe, breathe, do not judge, minimize harm, know this will pass, compassion, compassion, compassion” and it literally saved my sanity. And yes, although it sounds like paying attention would only INCREASE fear, it actually has the opposite effect. Why? Ask yourself, if you were a small child and you were sad or scared, wouldn’t you feel better just having someone, anyone come and put their arms around you and hold you and listen to you? It turns out that being a compassionate presence for ourselves is the most healing thing you can do. And if you can’t do it for yourself, find someone who can do it for you….be it a partner, friend, spouse, therapist or minister. BUT be sure they are truly compassionate, will gently and kindly listen and will NOT judge. The result is that the cycle of worry has been broken by compassion. Yes, Love is stronger than fear.
3. Jump to the worst case scenario and deal.
When I am facing something that seems impossible to bear, I will ask myself what the absolutely worst-case scenario wold be for the situation, and THEN I figure out how I will cope. If I can deal with the worst possible outcome, then I figure I can deal with anything. It is a silly little trick but it has calmed me down in some pretty bleak situations. And I’m always amazed at the solutions that pop into my head when I am relaxed enough to think. It isn’t very long before I realize that perhaps things aren’t as bleak as I thought and yes, I am going to be okay. Example: One of my dogs takes a daily medication. I was short on funds and ran out of his major heart medication. Panic set in as I thought of my sweet little buddy suffering. I thought I’d call the vet and ask if I could pick up a refill and pay the next week. After a conversation about why I was refilling the prescription so soon after the last refill, it turned out they had filled the last prescription incorrectly and actually owed me two weeks of medication! If I hadn’t have calmed myself down, I really don’t think I would have been able to figure out the mistake, even with the vets help. And as it turned out, they were willing to help regardless. The takeaway? Breathe. Let the answers come. And they will. Breathe some more.
4. Trust yourself. And if you can’t do that, trust the Universe/your Higher Power/God. Heck, do both.
This is the hardest piece of advice and yet, it is the most helpful. (I know. It’s not fair!) We have to cut ourselves some slack as most of us grew up on a verbal diet of “What makes you think you’re so smart?!” A steady message of “You can’t trust yourself” doesn’t exactly engender self-trust. But stop to consider, who else could possibly know what is better for you than you? Our parents weren’t trying to maliciously harm us by their messages of fear as they were just trying to keep us safe (and themselves safe from pain as well), but training us to NOT trust ourselves was about the worst possible gift they could have given us! No wonder we get locked inside our fears! (What if? What if? What if?!) Well, what if we trusted ourselves? What if we ARE right? What if we ARE on the right path? What if we ARE guided and Divinely Loved? Right? Can you feel yourself calming down? It’s because it is true: YOU CAN TRUST YOURSELF. And in the end, it’s YOUR life, not anyone else’s. You have to live with the choices you make- not your parents, spouse or friends- so make choices that have integrity and meaning for YOU. You don’t have to apologize for being yourself. And anyone who says otherwise is not your friend. And if you believe in a HP, then throw your fears onto a bonfire and remind yourself that YOU ARE NOT ALONE and that you ARE loved. If you need a reminder, use a mantra or find a symbol of your faith and carry it with you. Rosaries, worry stones, a penny you found on the sidewalk when you were sad and reached out to the Universe for a sign, some little thing that reminds you of the TRUTH. Breathe, reach out with your heart and thank your HP for being there even when you feel alone. I personally have a mantra that I repeat until I feel soothed, but use whatever has meaning for you. The corollary to this tip is that we don’t always have a view of the Big Picture and from our limited perspective in space-time, we may think our current circumstances are a complete train-wreck when really something much bigger and better is in the works. If we can just let go and trust, then we can get out of our own way and let the miracles happen in our lives.
Example: I lost my job and because I work in a specialized field, quickly ran out of prospects for employment. With real panic setting in, I started networking with tiny firms that had no benefits and very limited prospects. Things looked really bad, but I just focused on doing the next right thing (since I really had no other options!) and I eventually landed a part-time gig which paid as much as the full-time massively-stressed-out job I left. The best part is these folks are SO much nicer than any place I have ever worked at before. Ever. And to top it off? It turned out they are only a few miles from where I live thus reducing my commuting stress by 1 1/2 hours a day. I did not land up under a bridge and I found a job at I often describe as my “dream job.” Was it fun? OhmylovingGod, heck no! But I never would have left the crappy job because it represented stability. I was incredibly miserable but I had a paycheck. Now I look back and am so grateful the awful job went away! The takeaway? Actually, there are several! You are Divinely Loved. You can trust yourself. And, you don’t have all the information so just relax, do the next right thing, and everything will work itself out. Really. As a wise person once said, “Sometimes the wrong choices bring us to the right places.” You don’t have to figure out “perfect”. You CAN trust yourself.
I get a bunch of newsletters in my email from wonderfully inspiring spiritual leaders- Christian, Buddhist, nondenominational. In a recent newsletter I read that one of the signs you are making progress in your spiritual journey is that you discover you spend less and less time worrying…..which is to say, you spend more and more of your time trusting and loving. I can live with that! Namaste!