Do any of you worry about things you can’t control, or know anyone who does?
Through the years I have become better at letting go of worry, but there have been times in my life when it felt like I was holding the whole universe together by the tension in my body and the holding of my breath. As if by sheer will and obsessive worrying I could keep the people I love safe and protected from harm.
My first period of obsessive worrying came about when I was newly married. Now there was an individual who was so important to me that I didn’t want to trust God with his welfare; I wanted to control it myself.
Having children upped the ante even further in the worrying department. I worried about them getting hurt or getting sick. I worried about myself dying young and not being able to protect them or nurture them. (Or, apparently, worry about them!)
Though at times I have worried too much, at other times I am relatively trusting in the goodness of the Universe, and that things will work out for the best for all involved. Spending time in meditation or another spiritual practice has been essential in keeping the worries at bay.
The problem with worry is that it just doesn’t help. Anyone. At all. Ever. And it can cause harm, both to the worrier and those who are worried about, when worriers become overprotective and limit, or try to limit, another person’s life experiences to keep them safe.
The biggest problem with worry, though, is that it keeps us from enjoying the present moment with the people we love. While we’re off in our heads, dreaming up scary scenarios of things that might happen to us or other people, we are completely separated from the beauty and wonder of the present moment. And the present moment is the only moment that is guaranteed to us, and it is a pity to miss it.
The present moment is the only moment that is guaranteed to us, and it is a pity to miss it.
And yet, when a person is stuck in the misery of worry, it is hard to turn it off and return to the present.
There may be reasons that we have learned to worry. Some people may have grown up in an environment that was unstable, and never learned to depend on the people around them. Some people learned to worry from their worrier parents. And some people have had terrible things happen to themselves and others and have not been able to trust in life since.
When it comes to worrying about losing the people I love, I come by it honestly. I was adopted as an infant, which means that I was torn away from my natural mother soon after being born, spent time in an orphanage, then was adopted at 2 months of age by another couple. My adoptive parents did a wonderful job of raising me and loving me, but could not make up for the trauma of separation from biological family. I learned, at a very young age, that life is not reliable; that people can, and will, be taken from me without my consent. Hence the deep down feeling of terror when I start to feel close to people.
There is also an inherited component to worry. I found this out when looking at my 23andMe results, which I ordered to find out more about my health risks and ancestry. This genetic trait is known as the worrier/warrior trait.
To explain briefly, warriors have an advantage in situations in which the strategy changes a lot. They have an easier time entering into hypnosis, but the placebo effect is less effective on them. They also seem to perform better under stress.
Worriers have an advantage in memory and attention tasks, but when under stress have worse performance. Worriers also have greater access to the placebo effect, have a more difficult time entering hypnosis, and generally have modestly increased executive cognition performance.
You might be wondering which of these traits I possess, given my propensity to worry at times, but not at other times. And you would be correct if you guess that I have one of each trait. Having one worrier and one warrior trait leads to a kind of balance between the styles, but also seems to allow me to swing fully into worrier mode at times and warrior mode at others.
So what can you do if you are a chronic worrier? How do you learn to trust in the very goodness of life itself, and let go of trying to control the fate of everyone you care about? Here are some suggestions:
- Start with admitting that worrying is robbing you of the present moment, and adding stress to your life. Make a commitment to yourself to get out of your head and into what is really here, now. Get up and move around. Go outside and smell the roses. Practice mindfully working around the house. If you are well enough to exercise, it will help connect you to your body and get you out of your head.
- Phone a friend, a clergy person, or a counselor. Talk to someone about your worries. Everyone worries at times. Worried about one of you children? Call a friend who is also a parent. Support each other. Laugh about how ridiculous it is to try to control things through obsessive thinking. Trust me; all parents worry. `My daughter pointed out to me that when parents can’t get a hold of their children, often their first thought is that their child is dead. Been there, done that! Laugh about how absurd it is to think that way.
- Work with your body because it exists completely here and now; in this moment. Take a few deep breaths and ground yourself. Place a hand over your heart center and connect with the wisdom there. Feel that you are connected to all that is; with the oneness of reality. Pay attention to your breathing for a time. Relax.
- Connect with your faith in a higher power if you have such faith. Read the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhist thought, or the AA Big Book; whatever you have that gives you comfort or perspective. Or lose yourself in a good novel.
- Admit to God/the Universe/another person that your worrying is out of control, and ask for help in letting go of what you cannot change. Ask the Spirit to protect, guide, and care for those you love. Say a short prayer like this: “I realize I cannot keep the people I love in complete safety in this life, and I can’t change outcomes by worrying. Yet I do worry. Please help me let go and trust that all things work for good and, no matter what happens, I and those I love will be okay.”
- Simply say the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Repeat as needed.
- Do what you can to ensure the most positive outcome, and then let go. You’ve done what you can so now do something else. See the first bullet point above.
- Think positive. Set an intention that all will be well. I often do this when driving and worried about traffic or unsafe drivers. I say to myself: “I intend to drive, and arrive, safely.” It helps me relax and focus on driving.
Worrying too much about what could happen makes life miserable. It can rob us of peace of mind, raise blood pressure, make us sick, and shorten our lives. Those of us living with chronic illness know that stress makes things worse. Worry is major stress. And worry never does any good.
The paradox of worry is this: When we are worried about change or losing what we have, we are not really living now or enjoying what we do have. Even if you are genetically predisposed to worry, there are things you can do to change this pattern.
How about you? Do you worry too much? What ways have you found to break that pattern? Please share in the comments below.