I’m a worrier and I always have been. I’m not sure if it’s my genetics, being the oldest child in my family, or the way I was raised, but in any case, I’ve had worry lines on my forehead since I was ten years old. I remember my parents always saying to me “Luisa, just relax!” But as any chronic worrier knows, this is easier said than done. In fact, when people told me to relax, I felt even more anxious because I then believed that the way I was feeling was silly and inaccurate. Eventually, I went to therapy and learned some pretty effective ways to keep my worrying in check. Later in my life, I became a psychologist, and I learned even more about worrying and how to help others control their worry.
In order to manage worry, it’s helpful to understand it. Worry and anxiety are emotions. The act of experiencing emotions gives our brain information about our internal mental and physical states and helps us decide how to act. So… take an example of a positive emotional experience; let’s say eating ice cream. Eating ice cream makes us feel happy. We enjoy feeling happy, so this causes us to continue to eat ice cream. Conversely, let’s say being late makes us feel anxious. We don’t like feeling anxious so we make a habit of leaving early to avoid being late and thus feeling anxious. In both cases, emotions help communicate to our brain and consequently, influence our behavior.
Worrying can be productive if it causes us to take positive actions. If we worry about our health, we are more likely to make healthy choices. If we worry about an upcoming work presentation, we’re more likely to prepare for it and deliver it successfully. However, when we perseverate or ruminate about things we cannot control, worry is not effective and serves no purpose. For example, if you worry incessantly about the weather ruining your upcoming beach vacation, you’ll likely go into your vacation with a negative attitude and have a hard time enjoying yourself.
So when you find yourself worrying, ask yourself three simple questions:
- Is my worrying productive?
- Do I have control of what I am worrying about?
- Can I take positive action to ensure the outcome I want?
These questions will help you to decode whether or not your worrying is productive.
Of all the things I’ve learned, I’ve found mindfulness to be the one of most helpful in coping with pointless worrying. Mindfulness is the practice of being completely present in the moment. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a teacher of mindfulness meditation and the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts, defines mindfulness as:
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
I know what you’re thinking- making time for mindfulness is going to cause you even more stress and worry. And doesn’t it just sound boring? But mindfulness doesn’t have to take any extra time; you don’t have to meditate to benefit from mindfulness. Mindfulness is simply being aware and present in the moment. Instead of thinking about what just happened or what may happen, focus on the present. Easier said than done, right? Try focusing just on your breath. As you take a shower in the morning, instead of stressing about the day’s events, focus on breathing in and out, fully and slowly. Mindfulness is focusing on the now. If you’re making your kiddos breakfast, just focus on pouring the cereal into a bowl or spreading butter onto the bread. Notice each movement your hand makes with the butter knife, the smell of fresh toast, or focus on the sound of the cereal hitting the bowl. If you have a random worry thought, just notice it, but don’t dwell on it and try to bring your mind back to the present. Mindfulness is effective because if you’re living in the present moment, you can’t be worrying about the future or ruminating about the past.
Now I am not saying mindfulness is easy. It can be extremely difficult and frustrating. But it does get easier with practice; I promise. If you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness, check out the many readings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, and peace activist. Below is a quote from Nhat Hanh:
“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace
If you find yourself feeling constantly overwhelmed, anxious, and worried, Harmony At Home can help. Contact Dr. Luisa today.