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Monday, March 18, 2013

To Worry or Not to Worry, and If Not, How Not

Today’s topic: WORRY! Why do we do it, and how can we stop? I will be very interested in responses on today’s post (if anyone has the patience to wade through the whole thing), not just agreement or disagreement, but additions, clarifications, problems, alternate hypotheses, or whatever else comes to minds.

Thesis: Worry Is Superstition

I have done more than my share of worrying, starting in childhood, but have cut back considerably in recent years. Lately, instead of worrying so much, I’ve been thinking about worrying and its role in our lives, trying to figure out what function it could possibly play — other than the very important function of getting us to take preventive and remedial measures when a problem presents itself -- and what I’ve come to believe is that we worry so much because we are superstitious.

Positive changes that worry can spark, such as changing one’s diet or wearing a seatbelt or getting enough exercise or paying bills on time, are excellent reasons for initial unease. What I’m talking about is the needless fretting we continue to engage in when we’ve done everything we can possibly do — or, worse, instead of taking positive steps to eliminate the cause for concern. Do this thought experiment: Separate worry from the action it prompts. Imagine yourself taking the logical course of action but still worrying. Why? How can worry possibly add anything to the elimination of the outcome you dread?

“I can’t help it!”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a slave to worry any more than I want to be a slave to anger or fear or alcohol or caffeine or credit card debt. Saying “No, thank you” to worry, though, isn’t as simple as turning down a beer. This is part of what prompted my thinking about the problem. (Think, think, think, think.... Maybe I should start again?)

Again, the working hypothesis I’ve come up with is that the base of worry is superstition. If you are skeptical, please play along with me a little further.

Superstitions are interesting in themselves, persisting in the most educated of countries and individuals. Why do so many tall buildings lack a designated thirteenth floor? There is no reason other than superstition about the number 13. Note that numbering the floors of tall buildings only occurs in  cultures usually considered, in other ways, “advanced” – no buildings that tall in so-called “primitive” communities – and yet the superstition persists in a very powerful way. 

Here’s how The Encarta World English Dictionary associated with my Word program defines ‘superstition’:
1.    an irrational but usually deep-seated belief in the magical effects of a particular action or ritual, especially in the likelihood that good or bad luck will result from performing it  2.   irrational and often quasi-religious belief in and reverence for the magical effects of certain actions and rituals of the magical power of certain objects
So worry, as I’m seeing it, is a mental ritualWhen we worry, we vividly imagine exactly the outcome we fervently wish will not come about. But why would we do that?

Let’s look at an example. A common response to a medical diagnosis is “How much should I worry?” or “How worried should I be?” The question is asked in all seriousness – and let’s think about that for a moment. The patient is not asking how many ounces of water he should be drinking every day or how much time she should put into an exercise program or what medications are indicated or any number of questions that would make perfect sense, but what portion of mental energy should be devoted to worrying. The more you think about it, the stranger the question becomes. The patient is seeking to proportion worry to the seriousness of his or her condition, as if the mental activity of worrying will have some beneficial effect on the physical condition. The issue here is not what the patient should do, faced with the diagnosis. That is a separate and perfectly rational question.

As I try to tease apart this mystery, it seems to me that we hold a vague, unconscious, and unreflective belief that by worrying we feel we are making time payments to ward off future disaster. Pay now, play later! The focus of a worry, remember, is an undesirable outcome (or, all too often, multiple undesirable outcomes on a variety of fronts); thus worrying is suffering in advance that we feel should be subtracted from the outcome. If my hypothesis is correct, this same unconscious belief explains our worry over loved ones, as well. If, for example, I worry myself sick over my son’s late return home, I am paying the price that might otherwise have to be paid by a terrible accident befalling him. Or so says my superstitious belief.

Here is how we might articulate the underlying, unreflective, usually unconscious line of reasoning in the case of the patient in the doctor’s office:
1. A condition or situation calls for my attention.2. Worry is a form of attention.3. The correct amount of mental energy devoted to worrying, therefore, will help to bring about a positive resolution of the condition or situation.
How many of us, if asked to defend pointless, distracted fretting, would make such an argument consciously? And yet, how else to explain the dysfunctional distraction and the pointless, narrow focus that goes way beyond constructive action and can very well get in the way of constructive action?

Is It Possible to Stop Worrying?

“Don’t worry about it!” Easier said than done! There must be something in the evolution of our brains that pulls us toward the narrow focus when we feel threatened. Focus on a problem, after all, can show us possible courses of action. So there is the old evolutionary answer to the Why? question. Worry, however, can just as easily get in the way of productive thinking, or persist beyond productive thinking and constructive action, and in that way it works against us rather than for us.

So yes, I do believe worry is natural -- and yes, I also believe it is a waste of energy. What’s the answer then? Are we just stuck in a bad evolutionary design? Is there no way out of this dilemma. Help!!!

Awareness is the first step to changing any habit. Since focus is the problem, then, it seems clear that the next step will be to shift focus. How to make the shift will vary from one individual to another. Chop firewood? Meditate? Visit an elderly neighbor? Walk the dog? Dive into a remodeling project? The possibilities are endless. Sometimes just sharing concerns with a trusted friend weakens worry’s grip on imagination. Reality check!

When are you most vulnerable to worry? For me, it strikes hardest and worst in hours of darkness, in the middle of the night. I can lie still and keep my eyes closed and try to get back to sleep, but when worry is too strong I might just as well get up and out of bed. Sometimes a cup of cocoa and a book will relax me. Spending the time I wouldn’t otherwise have had on a writing project can turn sleeplessness to good use. Anything productive, even sorting laundry, is better than being paralyzed – because worry does tend to be paralyzing – and I’ll feel better just getting up on my feet.

When morning comes, a new course of action often reveals itself. Physical movement plus daylight jogs my brain, and I see a path hidden to me in darker hours. Then, if there’s something I can see to do, I do it, and if I can’t see any course of action to take in the worrisome area, I turn my attention to something else. Sometimes, after all, the worrisome aspect of life cannot be removed, but at the very least, if worry continues to sit like a cold stone in my heart as the day progresses, I can still get a few things done and feel better for having been productive, getting back my sense of agency – because it is the powerlessness of worry that is most distressing to me.

Looking to friends or family members from worry’s paralysis, we can all too easily perceive absence of worry on their part as absence of caring, seeing the distraught parent or friend in hysterics as more loving than the calm provider of mundane necessities and comforts, but “You should have been more worried about me!” is an accusation born of superstition.

Are you pleased when others worry about you? Do you feel that worrying about others shows you care? What about that vague feeling we almost never quite see clearly, that by worrying for a loved one we are doing something to bring about a positive outcome for that person? 


Here’s where I have recently come to a radical shift in my own point of view. Just as worrying about myself can imprison me negatively and get in the way of constructive action or healing or simple enjoyment of each day, I have come to believe that worrying about those I love is also a mistake and not good for them. Now, instead of showing and expressing worry, I seek to convey non-worry.

Does that sound heartless? Non-worry is not indifference. It is not telling a sufferer to “buck up and take it like a man” or “Stop whining—everyone has problems!” It is not—and I want to be very clear about this-- giving advice at all. It may accompany advice, if sufferer and comforter have that kind of relationship and wisdom, but non-worry may also be completely wordless.

Here’s an example: I was visiting a friend in the hospital and was present when she had to endure a painful blood draw. My old self, empathizing with her pain, would have clenched muscles in sympathy. I would have held my breath, my face showing nothing but worried concern. Would that have helped my friend? Would it have lessened her pain? Instead I tried something different, an idea came to me on the spot, and this is the first time I’ve told anyone about my what I did. Instead of tensing, I focused on relaxing my own body – hands, arms, breathing. What I wanted to do was to send calm to my friend. Moods can be contagious, I reasoned, and rather than add to her tension and fear, my aim was to reduce it.

Did it work? I have absolutely no idea. But could it possibly have made her pain worse? I don’t see how.

Not a Permanent Cure

What about falling back into old superstitious mental patterns? Well, of course! Over and over! Eating and sleeping and housework, mowing the grass and weeding the garden, all have to be done over and over – why should it be different with habits we want to conquer? Falling down isn’t the end of the world.

I will never be immune to worry. These days, though, acute episodes of short-lived panic (!!!) are a far more common feature of my mental life than endless days and nights of fretting. An unpleasant surprise or loss of control or difficult decision can throw me completely (if briefly) off-balance. But at least I will not be chewing it over endlessly and sinking into a bottomless pit. Anyway, if worry were a savings account, I would have millions in the bank by now!

Is that superstitious? To think I have a huge worry savings account? I said IF it were! If I’d had this insight at age 25, I don’t think I would be the poorer now for it.

But what do you think? Does my hypothesis of worry as superstition make sense to anyone else out there? Someone near and dear to me, a champion worrier, remains unconvinced, so I’m interested in what others think.

P.S. Can you tell by the length of this post how much worry I had to ward off???


Deborah said...

The subject of worry will resonate with everyone I believe though the amount of worry someone has varies with each individual, regardless of the personal situation. I've tried to remind myself that worrying won't do any good for me or anyone else. I like the thinking that worry is superstitous. I can rationalize to myself that superstition isn't logical. Like you, the very early, dark hours of morning are the worse!

P. J. Grath said...

You're right, Deborah, that some people worry more than others. The ones who hardly seem to worry at all amaze me! For me, anyway, a substitute focus is critical. If I keep telling myself not to worry about X, I'll only be keeping X in the front of my attention, like that business of telling someone not to think of an elephant. When you wake up and start worrying, do you get up or stay in bed and try to talk yourself out of it? Sometimes I try to shift focus without getting up, and whether or not I can do it depends partly on how wide awake I am. Sometimes getting up is the only thing that makes sense for me.

Laurie said...

I think a tendency to worry can indeed encourage us to become superstitious, but you should know that research has actually identified a "worry gene." My grandmother's family had it particularly bad, and I have it to some extent. I wonder if the same gene is what morphs into panic and anxiety disorders. You awaken with worry: I have done so in a full-blown panic attack! Completely unbidden, in both cases, when we are sleeping and without defenses.

My tendency to worry or suffer panic attacks is much reduced now that I am older and have put a lot of effort into it. Counseling, yoga, acupuncture, cranio-sacral therapy, breathing (especially a yoga breath called kapalabhati – quick, forceful exhalations and passive inhalations), visualization …

Dawn said...

Since I left management years ago I worry much less. I no longer have to lay people off or rearrange work loads, so that is off my plate. I worry some about my family members but know they are all reasonable adults that will make the best decisions possible. Mostly I worry that I won't be able to retire soon enough to have a long time to enjoy it!

My Mom said, many many years ago, when I lived in the UP and she lived in AL, and when I traveled a LOT for my job, that she was realizing that she would not always know exactly where I was or that I was safe and she was coming to terms with that. That lesson has stayed with me my entire adult life.

I guess I am lucky to not have a lot to worry about. The worst things that have ever happened to our family were sudden and totally I guess I feel that nothing more horrible than what we have already experienced can happen...which releases me from some of the natural worry others may have.

May you have a worry free day today!

P. J. Grath said...

Interesting about a worry gene, Laurie. I wonder if it’s related at all (since aren’t many genes responsible for more than one aspect of who we are?) to the genetic source of introversion?

This would be easy to find out, by surveying low-reactive (extroverted) and high-reactive (introverted) individuals for how prone they are to worrying. I’ll admit I had already asked myself if I could consider my speculation a ‘hypothesis’ if I had no way to test it! Could survey worriers for other superstitions they hold and practice, but what if all were related to a worry and/or high-reactive gene? Interesting questions.

In partial defense of my position, though, I’ll say on this issue as I have before on a few others (e.g., Is the ‘Universe’ setting lessons for me, personally, to learn as I fumble my way through life?) that there is no pragmatic difference between someone who meditates to calm an anxious genetic reaction and someone who meditates to shift mental focus away from superstition. Pragmatism is all about what works, not about what beliefs lead a person to what works.

Dawn, were you and your mother worriers before figuring out that worry was ineffectual? I’m glad you don’t have to lay people off any more. That would be a very stressful position for any sensitive person sympathetic to the feelings of others. As for retirement, even though I already live where you (?) would like to retire, I’m still working and don’t have the money or leisure time to live as many of my retired friends live, but my feeling is that I can’t afford not to be happy now. What if I have to work for the rest of my life? What if my life were to be cut short?

There is a drift of snow across our front yard and walk, parallel to the house, blocking the walk. That particular drift formation has never been there before, but every day we notice (as we take a different path out to the truck) how beautiful it is. Last night David came back in with Sarah and told me the drift was perfectly symmetrical, its sharp edge clean with new snow. I know that your walks and work with Katie give you a lot of happiness, Dawn, as does your music. Then there is your meaningful work on truck safety. You are living a good life. And I’m happy that you blog about your life so I can share a corner of it now and then!

Thank you both!

BB-Idaho said...

It is interesting that 'worry' often occurs in children whose mother, father or both are worriers. It terms of heritibility, there is some evidence that how the brain processes serotonin is genetic.
On the other hand, children pick
up learned habits from their parents as well.
My mother was a chronic worrier
(a regular hobby). I was too, until
I retired and learned to slow down.
...and my children have the tendency as well. My wife worries
about nothing and does not understand my pessimism. I explain it as when my multiple contingency
plans turn out to be unneccesary,
it is very relaxing. She, on the other hand, sometimes finds herself in a crisis (and wonders why)..luckily, the crisis was one of many things I worried about for
her...and have a plan. :)
IMO, 'worry' is to some extent natural for the human species: when it becomes 'anxiety' or unrealistic, it can be a problem.

P. J. Grath said...

BB, do you come up with multiple contingency plans AND keep worrying, or does having plans for different outcomes lessen your anxiety? People who don’t worry at all I cannot understand. Most seem to live with worriers, though (opposites attracting?), so it works out well for the non-worriers! There are a lot of things I like to think I’ve “learned” to do differently, but then I wonder if I’m so much wiser or if getting older is simply delivering benefits along with costs.

Anonymous said...

A timely revisit if’s thoug

A timely revisit to a 2013 post, Pamela!