What Is Worry?
As the bus lurched to a halt Stanley woke up with a start. Bolivian buses were a little different to home, and, although not marginally more dangerous, they were a little more bumpy and rugged. There was some dust and dirt stuck to the side of the bus, there were no seatbelts, and for some reason this seemed to worry Stan. On top of this, the driver seemed a little erratic, swaying the bus from side to side, but he couldn’t tell whether this was the driving, or the driver was trying to avoid pot holes. Stanley started to think about the dangers of riding buses. What if he got injured. He felt so totally out of control, being on a vehicle controlled by somebody else. What if they fell asleep? What if they misjudged a corner and ran off the road? He started to think about the bus crashing down the cliff face they were driving along. About waking up in a hospital bed. Or worse, what if he died in a bus crash? When his parents heard the news they would well up with tears.
In thirty seconds, he had gone from sleeping, to being wide awake to thinking about members of his family in tears. He burst into laughter all of a sudden, realising he was being stupid and hugged the eighty year old Bolivian lady sitting next to him.
“I’m so silly!” He exclaimed to her. “It’s a great day to be alive.” The lady looked at him with a look of warm appreciation for his gleeful and friendly seeming mood, mixed with confusion. He had forgotten not to speak to her in English. She hadn’t understood a word he said!
Worry is what Stanley experienced for the fleeting few minutes before he realised and snapped out of it. Worry is where one thought leads to another, leads to another, leads to a catastrophe, and before you know it you are stressing out and you don’t even know how you got there.
Why Do We Worry?
Worrying is our brain’s way of preparing for potential catastrophe. If we envision and think of solutions to an event ahead of time, then we will be more prepared for it, and we have a heightened ‘flight or flight’ ability from adrenaline in our blood. However, often we worry about things that are unlikely, or will never happen. Just as with superstitions we have a way of justifying it by something positive coming out of it, such as ‘I won’t forget to do this if I keep thinking about it’, or ‘Worrying is my way of trying to come up with a solution.’ And indeed, worrying can help to find solutions, but they are only useful if we act on them, otherwise they are not solutions at all, only potential solutions. For example, one may think, ‘My kids are getting a bad upbringing, I can’t afford them nice things, I need to earn more money so I can buy them nice things.’ The person has thought of a solution, but if they don’t find a way of acting upon it then they will continue worrying.
What Defines Bad Worry?
- Where you struggle to switch off, relax, and stop thinking about it.
- Where what you worry about causes you to loose sleep
- When worrying starts to affect you mental and physical health, where you find it harder to concentrate on things that matter such as eating healthy, work, getting regular exercise and having a healthy relationship
- When you worry about things which you can’t take action to make better
- When worry becomes a self perpetuating cycle
- When you worry about things, find solutions, but don’t put the solution into action
How to Stop Worrying
Watching the Thinker
Just observing how your brain worries, and how one thought leads to another, can be enough to break the cycle of constant worrying. Observing your chain of thinking, and chasing it back to what began you worrying, can help you to know what triggered your cycle of worry, and be aware of when you encounter it in future. For example, in the story of Stanley above, once he watched his cycle of worrying, and how he went from one thought to the next, he realised he had gone from worrying about one thing, to thinking about a catastrophe which was unlikely to happen, which was enough to help him break the cycle.
Three Possible Solutions and Which is the Right One to Pick for Your Kind of Worry
In Eckhart Tolle’s book ‘The Power Of Now’ he describes three solutions if you are unhappy in a situation. You can either:
- Remove yourself from the situation
- Accept the situation, or
- Do what is within your power to change that situation
These three options can sometimes be narrowed down to two, depending on what is best for your situation. For example, in our story at the beginning of this article, if Stanley wanted to remove himself from the situation, he could have stopped the bus, got off, and waited for another bus which looked safer, if he was in a place where another bus would pick him up, and not in the middle of no where. If he was somewhere where another bus would be unlikely to come, this would narrow down his options. He could of course accept the situation, which would be suitable if the level of risk he was worrying about was not too high. After all, there is no point spending some relaxation time worrying about something which is unlikely to happen. Lastly, he could have done what was in his power to change the situation, such as asked the driver to drive a little slower, by saying he felt unwell, or something, which may have helped, as long as he was nice and friendly about it.
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