What, Me Worry?
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened. “
– Mark Twain
“What, me worry?” is the signature phrase of Alfred E. Neuman, the fictional mascot and iconic cover boy of Mad magazine. His mischievous character is depicted as not having a care in the world. Unlike Alfred, many of us are plagued by worries from time to time. In fact, there are times when you might relate more to Ray Lamontagne’s lyrics from his song, Trouble: “Worry … Worry, worry, worry, worry. Worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone.”
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a worry as a “mental distress or agitation resulting from concern usually for something impending or anticipated.” From a cognitive-behavioral psychology viewpoint, a worry is a type of distorted thought, one that is exaggerated or irrational – out of balance from reality. More specifically, worry can be categorized as a form of catastrophic thinking: believing that something is far worse than it actually is. These thoughts can stem from an event, from which you think of all of the worst consequences, dwelling on the worst possible outcome. Or they can come from your own imagination of the future, anticipating all of the possible things that can go wrong, thinking of all of the “what If’s,” or expecting disaster.
In a mindfulness class last year, I asked my students whether worries are really necessary for our lives to function well. One student, Kirk, inquired further, “If you aren’t worrying, does that mean that you don’t care? Will things still get done if I don’t worry about them?” He pointed out that sometimes we get into the habit of believing that worry is a representation of how much we care about someone or something. So if we aren’t worrying, we are afraid that we don’t care or things won’t get done. In fact, worry can become so habitual that lack of worry may feel foreign or unsettling. Kirk pointed out that he was even worried about not worrying. Another student, Gloria, felt the same way. She then started to question whether the results of things were different when she worried or didn’t worry about them. In her exploration, she found that the results were the same whether she worried or didn’t; therefore, the worry wasn’t necessary or helpful. A third student, Arlene, suggested that it can be detrimental to try to go “cold turkey” reducing worry. Instead, she finds it more helpful to have something to replace it, such as a song, or a poem that is affirming.
Sometimes we start to believe that our worry is what is responsible for keeping things from happening. For example, I may unconsciously think that as long as I worry about a certain possibility, it won’t happen. One student, Robert, told a illustrative story about a man who watered his lawn even when it was raining. When neighbor asked why, the man replied, “To keep the elephants away.” When the neighbor pointed out that there weren’t any elephants anywhere near, the man claimed, “See, it works!” Sometimes, we rationalize that the worry is working – keeping bad things at bay. And then, when bad things don’t happen, we attribute it to the fact that we worried, thus, reinforcing the pattern. In this way we can mistakenly develop an illusion that we actually have control over the outcome of the future, merely from our thoughts about it.
These patterns of thought are not harmless. Preoccupation with our worries may keep us from noticing the toll that it actually takes physically, emotionally and interpersonally. The energy that you are spending worrying may actually be reducing the quality of your life in each moment. For instance, if you check in with your experience when you are in the midst of worry; you may notice physical impacts, such as tension in your body, digestive disruption, inability to sleep or even pain; you may notice emotional impacts such as anger or frustration; you may notice interpersonal impacts, such as not listening to other people when they are trying to communicate with you. Additionally, you may begin to notice a chain of distorted thoughts that get triggered, escalating this state or keeping you engaged for a prolonged period. By paying attention, you might recognize that there is a cost to your worry, not only for you but for others around you!
There is an alternative, however. Instead of allowing your worries to continue to take a toll on you, try working with them in a more mindful way:
- Start to notice when you are caught in worrying thoughts
- Write the worrisome thoughts down to make a record of them when they occur along with some notes about how you are feeling physically, emotionally, interpersonally (how you are reacting) and other thoughts that may get triggered. This helps you develop greater awareness not only of the thoughts themselves, but of the price you are paying as you engage in them.
- You may begin to see patterns emerge: what conditions trigger these worries, or how you end up feeling physically, emotionally or interpersonally.
- The next time you catch yourself engaged in worrisome thoughts, try rebutting those thoughts with a more balance or affirmative alternative.
An example of this process:
Situation: Your teenager when out to a movie with friends in the evening. It is raining very hard and he was supposed to be home by 11pm. It is now 11:30pm.
A catastrophic thought: “He was hurt in a car accident or in some other terrible situation.”
A rebuttal to that thought: “He is a teenager and may not be paying as much attention to the time as I’d like him to. He might still be having fun with his friends instead of recognizing how late it is.”
With mindful awareness, you have the opportunity to minimize the amount of time and energy you spend worrying. You may find that your life continues to function well without it and, moreover, you may actually find that the quality of your moment-to-moment experience improves.
“In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double”
– Bobby McFerrin