Worrying is something we all do from time to time. You might worry that you left a burner on at home or that you didn’t study enough for a test or that your boss is displeased with your work. If the majority of your thoughts center on worrying, however, then it’s likely that you’ve begun to wonder, “Why do I worry so much?” You’re probably even….worried about it.
In my work with therapy clients in the past, we worked together to break down the components of worry and understand how it works. What makes up worry? It seems to be composed of three elements:
The Worry Process = fearful backward thinking + nervous forward thinking + future-oriented problem solving
The key is not to get stuck for long in the first two parts of this equation. If you spend too much time looking backward, ruminating about what you’ve already done wrong, you can become paralyzed by your own failures.
If you spend too much time nervously thinking about all the things that might go wrong (but haven’t and might not), you can get trapped by a sense of doom, frozen by your own belief that no action is safe.
The last part of the equation (future-oriented problem solving) is the healthiest. It’s the part of worry that prompts you to consider what to do, what course of action might be the best one, the healthiest and most positive. Train yourself to spend more time in the third part of the Worry Process, to take a no-nonsense approach and construct your own mental attitude. You can even create a mantra to get yourself into the right mindset.
In Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s memoir Not Now, Voyager, she writes about the plucky, practical attitude her friend took toward traveling and how it made his trips work out so much better. His attitude/mantra was this one: Problems will arise, and I will resolve them.
I liked that attitude so much that I took it for my own. I don’t pretend that nothing bad has ever happened and neither do I generate a bunch of problems that don’t exist. I simply remind myself that life is fraught with inconveniences, trouble, glitches, and even trauma (as well as joy, pleasant surprises, and love). I tell myself: Problems will arise, and I will resolve them. That way, I’m ready if something bad happens, but I’m not so focused on negative outcomes that I steer toward them unwittingly.
Let’s remember, too, that there are levels of unease. For instance, concern is one thing—that tiny, nagging sense that there could be trouble, a mild disquiet that might lead you to check on a friend or pack Band-Aids for an upcoming hike.
Worry is usually more persistent, a mental insistence on seeing negative possibilities and sometimes even working through them, though they don’t exist. Anxiety is farther down the spectrum, and paranoia still farther. The subject of paranoia is more complicated, deeply rooted, and intense.
What prompts worry?
- You might worry because you don’t have enough information.
Action Step: Gather more information if you can, and do your best with the information you have.
- You might worry because you know too much—you have too much information.
Action Step: Decide how you want to handle the information. Use it wisely to inform your next best action.
- You might believe worry staves off problems.
Action Step: Remind yourself that no amount of worrying will prevent life from being what it is: messy, complicated, difficult, wonderful, terrible, and mysterious.
- You might think that the world is a terrible, dangerous place, that most outcomes are bad.
Action Step: Create a mental reset. The world does indeed contain negativity and darkness, but it contains an equal amount of positivity and light. Work toward balancing your outlook.
- You might have an anxiety disorder.
Action Step: Call a professional and set up an appointment without delay. This is a disorder that requires treatment.
Here are some signs that you might have an anxiety disorder:
- Persistent anxious thoughts for six months or more
- Worrying so much that it causes daily suffering
- Sleep problems
- Obsessive or compulsive behaviors
- Overwhelming fear that prevents you from carrying out daily activities
- Extreme self-criticism
- Tension in your muscles, resulting in TMJ, neck soreness, headaches, back problems, etc.
- Chronic digestive problems
- Feeling excessively self-conscious in social situations
- Frequent panic attacks
- Traumatic flashbacks
- Racing thoughts
If you do not have an anxiety disorder and you simply worry too much, try my approach. Remind yourself: Problems will arise, and I will resolve them. I can vouch for its effectiveness. It keeps you from getting stuck in a negative thought spiral and propels you toward taking the right action. Keep in mind that sometimes the right action is to do nothing at all.