One of my favorite authors, Eckhart Tolle, is quoted saying “Worry pretends to be necessary but serves no useful purpose”. The first time I read that statement I was confused and excited at the same time thinking things like:
- As a mother, isn’t part of my job to worry?
- Isn’t it naïve to assume everything will be fine and that there’s no need to worry?
- If it’s true that worry isn’t necessary then why am I doing it all the time?
- How will problems be solved if I don’t worry first?
- How can I learn to stop worrying?
First, it’s important to understand that the human mind is a problem-solving machine. Every invention you have the privilege of living with was created by the power of someone’s problem-solving mind.
However, there is a big difference between problem-solving and worrying. Problem-solving invites answers and solutions to questions and worrying invites pain and discomfort in addition to more questions.
Second, worry is focused on things that could happen in the future. For mothers, worry is one of those emotions that we tell one another we should experience without realizing the ramifications.
This week I’m going to discuss what worry really is, why you worry and how to stop.
What worry really is
The reason the quote from Eckhart is so exciting and confusing at the same time is because it challenges you to question what you’ve been taught to believe. It shines a light on something that you’ve taken for granted as a necessary part of life and it offers you the chance to see things differently.
Worry is an emotion in the “fear family”. It’s a tricky emotion because you’ve most likely been taught not only to worry for yourself but to also help others by telling them what you think they should be worried about.
For example, you wouldn’t say to a friend “I noticed you are sad about what happened so let me give you some more reasons that you should be sad” however you might say “I was worried about the same thing as you and here’s some things you may not have considered”. Without realizing it you may perpetuate someone else’s feeling of worry with your own concerns and vice versa.
As part of the “fear family”, worry is your brain’s way of sensing danger and protecting you. Your primitive brain is motivated by three things, to avoid pain, seek pleasure and to be efficient therefore fear is a primal emotion.
To illustrate this, imagine a version of the game show “Family Feud” where all the fear-based emotions like worry, anxiety, panic, shame, hopelessness and jealousy are all lined up on one side of the stage. These emotions are all different members of the “fear family” and they all come from a common belief that you need to be protected from something.
Your natural intuition to avoid something that is dangerous is important to honor however as you develop from a young girl to a woman to a mother, your natural intuition can become warped. You may begin to use the filter of fear to anticipate the future and begin believing that worry is necessary.
Why you worry
Since fear is a natural part of your brains evolution then isn’t worry also natural? While fear may be natural, the future-focused feeling of worry is often taken to an extreme that wreaks havoc on your ability to handle your life, your relationships as well as your ability to parent.
The reason it has gotten so out of hand is because it is one of the only negative emotions that you believe you SHOULD experience. You believe you are looking out for someone’s welfare when you pass along things to be worried about and you believe the validity of other people’s worries when they share them with you as well.
It seems like you’re “all in this together”, swapping concerns, pointing out things that someone else may not have considered or telling cautionary tales. When you read or hear about something that triggers fear or worry for you, it seems helpful to share those things with others and vice versa.
Worry becomes even more powerful when you become a parent because it seems like you are handed a “worry card” as they check you out of the hospital. You get the message that every single aspect of your child’s life is in your hands so you better be prepared with as much information about what could go wrong as you can.
For example, when I was pregnant with my first child I was blissfully unaware of horrible pregnancy and delivery stories because every woman in my family thankfully kept them to themselves. However, when I was at work or even at the grocery store, well-meaning people would share things that were intended to inform me but actually only created worry like labor and delivery horror stories.
The process of worry often begins when some future outcome is uncertain and you want to make sure it turns out well. Since living with uncertainty is so uncomfortable, your mind spins in “what if” scenarios trying to find some sense of control over the unknown.
Unfortunately when you spend so much time worrying and then nothing bad happens, which is actually most of the time, your mind creates a connection which can become a belief. This pattern creates a thought error in your brain that can look like:
If I worry -> It prevents harmful things from happening
You may also have thought errors like “Worrying now will help me to not be disappointed if something bad does actually happen later” or “If I don’t worry it will seem like I don’t care”. Believing that worry insulates you and others in some way is why it can be difficult to change the habit, but not impossible.
How to stop worrying
Worry is one of those insidious emotions that will keep you stuck and much less effective at being able to handle a situation if it does actually happen. It’s important to understand that when you are worried or on edge your nervous system is on high alert.
An overabundance of worry and stress is like a slow poison to the body. Your body releases hormones like cortisol and dopamine in response to your thoughts which then affects your blood pressure, heart rate, sleep patterns, reproductive functions and short-term memory among many other things.
An interesting term that I recently heard from Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project, is the term “awfulizing”. This is when you take a situation and spin out worst case scenarios in your mind assuming that the worst is what’s going to happen.
In order to help you stop worrying, I first want you to measure your level of worry on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the worst. Once you’ve determined where you are on the worry scale, you can use the following suggestions:
Scale of 1 – 4
(you feel good most of the time but have occasional worries)
This is when the problem-solving part of your brain is the most helpful. When you realize that you are heading towards worry, you can begin to ask yourself “What CAN I do in this moment?”
Often when you worry about something it means you are future-focused and problem-focused rather than solution-focused. Understanding that the feeling of worry comes from your thoughts and you always have control over your thoughts helps to take back control when you are starting to feel a little out of control.
The feeling of worry only weakens your ability to take action if there is something to be done. Since worry won’t change the diagnosis, help you lose weight or make your children never drink and drive you can instead ask an empowering question that focuses your attention on something you can do to take you out of the worry mode.
When you can pause and ask yourself an empowering question, you give your brain something to focus on rather than “awfulizing” the situation. Stopping to consider what you CAN do taps into the more practical, less dramatic part of your brain which allows you to make a rational choice, whether it’s to take some action or not.
The next time you start to awfulize a situation, tap in the problem-solving part of your brain and ask “What CAN I do in this moment?” Taking charge is always an option.
Scale of 5 – 7
(you feel distracted with worry more than you would like)
One of my favorite authors, Byron Katie, offered a powerful worry solution in her book Loving What Is. In the book she tells the story about her daughter who had a drug problem. She was waiting for her daughter to get home one night and was sick with worry because she was late.
In Katie’s mind she began imagining her daughter dead on the road, in a horrible accident or having hurt someone else. She was spinning in “what if” scenarios that were taking over her mind and her body.
Her solution was to take a moment to pause and ask “What is true in this moment?” The ONLY thing that was true in that moment was “Mother, sitting in chair, waiting for daughter”. That was it.
The awfulizing story she had created in her mind was just that, a creation. When she stopped the story and asked what was true in that moment, the dramatic story couldn’t hold up.
Since worry is so future-focused, being fully present with the truth of this moment is how worry becomes unnecessary. When you create the awareness that worry doesn’t make a situation better, it doesn’t change the outcome and you won’t be glad afterwards that you spent so much time distracted with worry you can become more present.
The next time you feel distracted with worry ask yourself “What is true in this moment?” and only focus on this moment. It’s the only one that really matters.
Scale of 8 – 10
(you feel out of control with worry and it’s affecting everything in your life)
When you get to this point on the worry scale, it can feel like you have a hurricane in your mind that is swirling around, picking up more and more negative thoughts until it grows to an alarming category 5. This is not the time to just practice thinking pretty, happy thoughts because you’ve got too much momentum going.
Instead of suggesting that you try to completely change your thoughts, I suggest that you make a “worry appointment”. This is a set time of day and a set amount of time that you will allow yourself to worry.
By making an appointment with yourself, you can have some control over when and how much time you spend in worry. If you have a negative thought that creates worry at any other time during the day or night, you can say “Not now. Wait for the appointment time” and write the thought down so you can address it at the time of the appointment.
When you feel so out of control with worry that it’s negatively affecting different areas of your life then allowing worry to be heard can help to lessen the momentum. You may even find that by the time you have your worry appointment, you are already feeling a little better.
The next time you feel out of control with worry and it’s negatively affecting your life, make a worry appointment and stick to the amount of time you’ve decided for the appointment. When negative thoughts try to get your attention before your appointment, write them down but don’t indulge in them until your scheduled appointment time.
Thankfully there is a way to reduce or even stop worrying that doesn’t involve medicating yourself with a prescription or buffering with food and alcohol to get some relief. By understanding what worry is, why you worry and how to stop it, you can get back to focusing on reaching those goals, having better relationships and being the best parent you can be while managing your mind towards a more peaceful life.
- Problem-solving invites answers and solutions to questions and worrying invites pain and discomfort in addition to more questions.
- While fear may be natural, the future-focused feeling of worry has been taken to an extreme that wreaks havoc on your ability to handle your life, your relationships as well as your ability to parent.
- Awfulizing is when you take a situation and spin out worst case scenarios in your mind assuming that the worst is what’s going to happen.
- If you are a 1 – 4 on the worry scale then the next time you start to awfulize a situation, tap into the problem-solving part of your brain and ask “What CAN I do in this moment?” Taking charge is always an option.
- If you are a 5 – 7 on the worry scale then the next time you feel distracted with worry ask yourself “What is true in this moment?” and only focus on this moment. It’s the only one that really matters.
- If you are an 8 – 10 on the worry scale then it’s time to make a worry appointment. Schedule a time of day and a set amount of time that you will allow yourself to look at the thoughts creating your feeling of worry.
If you’d like some help with worry, please feel free to schedule a free mini session or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can get to work together.