I’ve been thinking a lot lately about worry and worrying. Many people close to me are definitely professional worriers, including family, a couple of close friends, and some clients. On bad days, I can certainly fall down a rabbit hole of worry.
All this thinking about worry made me want to dig deeper into the word itself. Worry, to worry, it sounds so harmless. I looked it up in my prized possession – The Oxford English Dictionary. It’s in Volume XX, Wave – Zyxt, and its roots take up almost 3 full pages, tracing worry backwards to its very first usage circa 725 (yes, that’s 1,312 years ago) when our language’s first verb worry meant “to kill (a person or animal) by compressing the throat; the strangle.” It took until 1804 for the verb to morph into a more metaphorical verb meaning “a troubled state of mind arising from the frets and cares of life; harassing anxiety or solicitude.” Worry’s various definitions all have to do with choking, suffocating, or otherwise constricting the throat (voice, perhaps?) of something until it is no longer living. [OED, pp570-572, Oxford University Press, ©1884-1991, Oxford, England]
I find these worrisome roots to be incredibly disturbing and also enlightening.
Worrying IS like strangling the life out of each and every moment spent worrying. How much life is lost to worry? How much of YOUR life have YOU lost to worry?
Or if it’s not lost completely, how much is strangled, choked back, made to so thoroughly struggle so as to ruin the experience of being fully alive and human?
When we worry, our attention is split on the inside. Our attention is focused on “what ifs” instead of “what is.”
I have a vivid childhood memory that illustrates this split attention and what if focus. When I was in middle school, the movie Top Gun came out and I became obsessed with the Navy fighter jets featured in those famous “dog fighting” scenes. Since my dad loved all things engineered, he totally embraced my obsession and began adding trips to the Pensacola Naval Air Station to our family beach trips to visit family who lived in Florida. Pensacola is the home of the Navy’s elite flying squadron The Blue Angels. In Pensacola, it’s pretty easy to get to see them in action because they practice over those wide open Gulf shore waters.
One gorgeous, sunny day during a beach trip, we were just hanging out on the beach and enjoying bobbing in the emerald water when one – two – three – then all 6 F-18 Hornets clearly painted in the Blue Angel’s signature blue & gold appeared on the horizon ahead of us. They were SO close to us! And practicing their amazing tricks! We could see them, and then hear the sonic BOOM as they would disappear and reappear a split second later in an entirely different spot and doing something else that you just wouldn’t believe was possible! Over and over they practiced their maneuvers and I stood in the water mesmerized, absolutely excited out of my 13 year old mind. (Even as I write this story, I get giddy and excited and feel it coursing through my body as my heart rate speeds up a bit. Excitement that LOUD and large and rare is STRONG, even almost 30 years later.]
Then I turned back and looked at my mom, clapping wildly, delighted, and asked, “Isn’t this AH-MAZING, Mom?”
To which she flatly replied, her face crinkled in worry, “I just hope they don’t make a mistake and crash and kill us all.”
That’s what she said.
She wasn’t kidding.
Suddenly, that moment of exhilaration was gone. Deflated. [Again, as I write the story, the open expansiveness of excited caved to the tone and abrupt end of itself, choked off by the fear and worry.]
The full impact of this moment of grateful, excited surprise was completely strangled by my mother’s worry about a highly unlikely scenario of horror that was, for some reason, the only thing she could think about in that moment. Her worry was an abrupt shift in energies. Instead of this being a story of pure, wide-open, unhindered joy and excitement, it’s a story about worry. Instead of this moment being 100% great, it’s a 100% great moment whose life was cut short, worried to death. Now 30 years later, this moment in my memory is NOT pure enthusiasm and excitement (though, thankfully, it does begin with that and is totally worth remember every time), as it’s tainted by my mom’s worry and abrupt expression of it. Moments can never be completely un-strangled, as it turns out.
Neuroscience and psychology research agree that we are wired to be biased towards “negatives,” which is part of our survival circuitry. Our nervous system wants and needs to make sure we remember which things are dangerous so that we choose “safe” options in the future when confronted with similar stimuli. That’s great! And it clearly helps in our survival as a species and as individuals. Learning is good!
However, this negative bias can be detrimental when over-used as it can strangle our ability to take reasonable risks and to seek both new and novel experiences that expand our lives, our minds, and our consciousness to fuel conscious growth and development. Brain and nervous system health is stimulated through growth, not stagnancy and fearful worry.
So what can we do to stop worrying and do something more productive with our concerns?
We can take action to shift our thinking because we have a big, fancy, adaptable brain.
As with any habit, the first step is becoming aware that worry is indeed a habit, just like biting your nails or smoking or stopping at the grocery store on Tuesdays. Habits are routine, so we just don’t think about them much, if any. When you make yourself aware of worry as a habit, you can start shining an airplane landing light onto it to illuminate it thoroughly. Get to know when and how and why you worry by observing yourself. By observing more and reacting less, you’ll be able to make more choices about how long you let worry strangle your energies.
Step two is that you can ask yourself questions about what you’re observing, like:
- Is what I’m worried about actually happening right now?
- How likely is my worry to happen this week? At all?
- What could I do for myself right now to feel more at ease – physically, mentally, or emotionally?
- How do I feel (like, in my body) right now? Where am I tense? Could I take deeper breaths?
- Will this worry matter a year from now?
- Is my worrying helping to solve a problem for anyone?
You get the idea. Treat that habitual worry like a teenager who came home past curfew, but play nice and no guilt trips. Shift your focus onto observable aspects of your actual here and now: inside your body, with others in the room, the physical space around you.
Most worry and anxiety is like a lost time traveler – if you take stock of the actual here and now, most of the time you are just fine and nothing is *actually* wrong. Over time, your worry habit will become more flexible so that its grip will loosen and your mind can become more positive and solution-oriented.
Don’t worry, take action now.
Call 864-660-3132 us to schedule a free coaching consultation.