Don’t worry to the bitter end – quit while you’re ahead
Excessive worry takes the joy out of life – if you’re a big worrier, learn to stop
Walk away the worry: When you go for a walk you can train yourself to keep bringing your awareness back to what you’re seeing and hearing and to the sensation of walking, instead of having your head stuck in a cloud of worry
Everybody worries, but I have met people who build great cathedrals of worry in their heads. They ponder, not only every angle of the issue that faces them, but every angle of every angle. Richard Carlson, best known as author of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, described this behaviour as “a socially acceptable form of mental illness”.
That is, I think, a little unfair but it isn’t entirely off the mark. For instance, rumination – endlessly cycling negative thoughts – has been linked with depression. Also, this kind of worrying take a lot of the joy out of life – it’s hard to take pleasure in things and worry the heck out of them at the same time.
A review of research on worry (reported by Christian Jarrett in the Research Digest of the British Psychological Society) concluded that excessive worriers make a fundamental error.
The error is that they think they need to worry until they have solved their problem completely. But problems get solved out there in the real world and not in the prison of the worrying mind, so this is a self-defeating behaviour. How often have you wondered, “What was I worrying about?” when a problem solved itself or when the outcome was completely different to what you thought it might be – nobody else cared that the evening wasn’t perfect, for instance?
People with low levels of anxiety also worry but with one big difference: when they get fed up worrying they stop, and get on with the next thing. They recognise that worrying is getting them nowhere and they drop it.
The poor old worrier, though, is stuck. As Jarrett points out, excessive worry lowers our mood and a low mood leads to more worry as we try to think our way out of the low mood.
In his book Stop Thinking Start Living, Carlson described one form of excessive worrying as a habit of “troubleshooting” life. He added: “Troubleshooting is a way of life for many people. It means being on the lookout for what’s wrong, finding flaws, seeking out imperfections, pointing out potential pitfalls, finding fault, generating concerns, being a sceptic, and remembering past mistakes.”
Recognise any of that?
If you do, you are not alone. Excessive worry is, I guess, a behaviour that is as old as humanity, despite the fact that the worrying mind so often gets things wrong.
I have noticed myself that the predictions my worrying mind makes rarely work out quite as expected. The thing I think will go wrong goes right and the sure bet falls at the first fence. The mind, indeed, is like a racing tipster who tells you with great seriousness what is going to win the three o’clock at the Curragh even though, if you faithfully followed its forecasts, you would go broke.
Is there a way out of this vicious cycle or are you condemned to sitting there worrying your life away? According to Jarrett, it helps to understand and accept that endless worrying is more harmful than helpful and to be willing to stop worrying at a much earlier stage. That realisation alone can help people to stop worrying earlier. I certainly found it helpful to realise that my mind is a bit of a con artist.
It’s also helpful to train your attention. So if you’re at a movie but you find yourself worrying yet again about some long-standing issue at work, you can practise bringing your attention back again and again to what’s happening on the screen. When you go for a walk you can train yourself to keep bringing your awareness back to what you’re seeing and hearing and to the sensation of walking, instead of having your head stuck in a cloud of worry.
None of this stops you from sitting with pen and paper and working out solutions or from seeking advice. But self-perpetuating, endless worry has little (maybe nothing) to recommend it.
Let’s face it, if it worked, wouldn’t you have solved all your problems by now?
Padraig O’Morain (firstname.lastname@example.org) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is ‘Mindfulness for Worriers’. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.