When was the last time worrying about something actually improved a situation?
If I had to take a guess, in my case, it was sometime around … oh, the 12th of NEVER.
And believe me when I say it’s had puh-len-TY of opportunities to step up to the plate. I spent my teens and much of my 20s as a champion worrier, spending a pretty significant amount of time being concerned about things that might happen to me, to my loved ones, or to the world, as well as things that had already happened and, to everyone who didn’t live in my overworked monkey brain, were over and done with.
It was like, if I could just worry hard enough, I could make a difference. If I really, really focused, my incredible worrying powers would:
- keep my flight from being delayed,
- convince my teacher to give me a good grade on the paper I’d turned in,
- help my friend deal with her mother’s sudden passing,
- magically take me back in time so that, when the cute waiter told me to enjoy my meal in 1997, I would respond with something other than, “You, too!”
Spoiler: It didn’t work in any of those cases.
So why do we do it?
Why Worry? (And What It Really Does)
Worrying, at least in my case, made me feel productive in situations where I was otherwise helpless. And the more I did it, the more my brain defaulted to that state of worry — which became kind of addictive, and all I could focus on was this feeling in my brain that told me I was doing something …
Which kept me from seeing what all my worrying was really doing, because it was actually:
- Hindering my productivity in areas of my life that were healthy,
- Taking focus away from the good things in my life,
- Keeping me from being present (because I was constantly anxious about something that could possibly happen in the future or stressing about something that was over and done with),
- Sapping my joy,
- Affecting my physical health.
So What’s a Worrywart to Do?
First, stop calling yourself a worrywart. Can we all agree that it’s a terrible word?
Great. So, please understand that, in urging you to stop worrying, I am not putting out a call for apathy. I don’t want you to stop caring. If you’re an empathetic soul like me, continue to feel deeply — I don’t want you to disengage or avoid being angry or sad or concerned when it’s warranted. In my opinion, the world we currently inhabit needs people like us to get riled up and take action on the issues that move us.
But that “taking action” part is crucial. If something concerns you — if you’re feeling worried — take note of the true cause and think about what you can do about it … and then decide if that’s something you’re willing to do. If so, make a plan, take steps, and get to it — even if “getting to it” isn’t anything huge. Just a small actionable step can help you really understand that almost anything is more helpful (and feels so much better) than worrying.
If you realize that there’s nothing you can possibly do, or you’re not willing to do the only things that could be done to help (which is OK! Not everyone has to be willing to do everything all the time!), then ask yourself what good it’s doing you — or anyone else — to hold onto this feeling, this thought pattern, this worry. And when you realize that all it’s doing is weighing you down, release it — and focus on what’s next.
Not sure what I mean? Let’s take a look at the four random examples I shared of things I’ve tried to fix by worrying really, really hard:
Preventing flight delays. It’s natural to feel some stress when travel plans get thrown off, but freaking out about whether it might happen doesn’t do anything for anyone. So, before your trip, try to channel your abstract worry into productive planning for the parts that are within your control. Get to the airport on time, be prepared, and, if you honestly have reason to be concerned about a delay due to, say, weather, inform yourself of logical alternative options so you can move quickly if needed. But don’t waste your energy trying to bring your plane to the gate on time with your mind — it’s simply out of your control.
Hoping for a good response. Look, once you’ve completed and submitted something on which you’re expecting feedback — a paper, a project, a piece of art, even a text you were nervous about sending — you can’t change anything by continuing to worry. (For the record, I still struggle with this one whenever I write for a new publication or try a topic outside my comfort zone. It’s so hard!) It’s challenging to just … not think about it, of course, because you’re waiting on someone else. But you probably have no control over when or how they respond. In this case, I find it helpful to get my mind off of it completely — challenging workouts, reading a great book, cooking a new recipe (we’ve got loads here), etc.
Helping a friend in pain. Oh, if only we could truly shoulder the burdens our loved ones are saddled with — but we can’t. We can’t hurt badly enough to lesson their grief, we can’t wish fervently enough to turn back time, or lessen the impact a tragedy has on them. It doesn’t work that way — and this is a perfect example of where worrying truly gets in the way, because, when you’re so caught up in being concerned, it can keep you from actually being there to do the things they need from you, like listening, being strong, running errands, or simply sitting with them and letting them feel the way they need to feel without having to think about how it’s impacting you. Feel the way you need to feel given the circumstances, but don’t take on that emotional load because you think it’ll lighten theirs.
Time travel re-dos. I won’t lie to you — as much as I’ve worked on this, and I really am so much better about managing worry, I still find myself blindsided on occasion by a memory of an embarrassing moment, an awkward response, or just a scene I wish I could do over. I’ll think of comebacks that I wish I’d thought of during an argument in middle school, or I’ll picture that time when I worked in a bridal shop and didn’t handle an angry bridesmaid with the kind of grace I probably should have. And yeah, of course there’s the cute waiter. I’ve not yet figured out how to keep those thoughts from popping into my brain, but I have learned that it’s entirely within my power to see them, acknowledge them, and dismiss them. They might hit me as I’m falling asleep, but if I actively choose to turn my thoughts elsewhere, they no longer haunt my dreams.
You might’ve read a little bit about my thoughts on choosing to find joy, even in the midst of less-than-perfect circumstances in a recent FBG email (sign up for our rad emails here), and I think that dovetails really nicely with the concept of realizing that, although worry happens, it doesn’t have to play a huge role in our lives. When you realize how much power you actually have over how your brain — and body — respond to anxiety-causing situations, guys, the game seriously changes. And very much for the better.
I’m a work in progress, but I’m definitely willing to keep doing this anti-worry work. So who’s with me? Anybody else hoping to ditch the worry? If not, would you share why? Because once upon a time, I was really tied to being someone who worried, and it made me feel kind of important, so, if that resonates, I urge you to keep thinking about what that feeling is truly doing for you. —Kristen