“Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.”
– Erma Bombeck
Somewhere in my distant childhood, I attended every class in the school of magical thinking where I learned that worrying is useful. Either it wards off something bad from happening or it allows you to gloat, “I told you so” if the bad thing comes to pass. In this school, nothing’s worse than being caught unaware. Being an A student, I became a champion worrier.
Of course, this belief system is total nonsense. Worrying is a profoundly useless act, one that does nothing but send us into fight/flight/or freeze, flooding our bodies with stress hormones, tearing down our immune systems, and diminishing our ability to think productively and take action on behalf of the well-being of ourselves and others. It doesn’t even work! Truly nothing I have ever worried about has come to pass and everything painful and difficult in my life have been events I hadn’t been worried about! Talk about a waste of time and energy…
It took me about 40 years to conclude that worrying was not merely useless, but profound mental torture I was inflicting upon myself and committed to learning more healthy mental habits. I can still fall into the trap sometimes, especially where my child is concerned. And in addition to personal worries, these times are certainly conducive to worry. Economic turmoil, Covid, environmental collapse, political insanity, racial injustice—how do we respond to the myriad of issues surrounding us?
One thing I know for sure is that, like Erma Bombeck said in the quote above, worry keeps us in one place, failing to act. And that’s the last thing we should be doing. We need to get into relationship with one another and move into action. That means we have to stop being worriers and become warriors—spiritual warriors, environmental warriors, justice warriors, entrepreneurial warriors.
If you’d like to change your worrying ways, here are some of my tried and true practices. I’m offering several because I’ve found that different people need different techniques at different times. And remember–you have to practice a lot to change your brain. But it is possible. This doesn’t mean you’ll never fall in the worry pit again, but hopefully you’ll know how to climb out.
- Whenever you notice yourself worrying begin breathing slowly and deeply through your nose and try to relax your whole body on each exhale. Do this for a minute, until you begin to feel calmer.
- Bring your time horizon way down to the present moment. This very one. Worry is always about the future, even if that future is a minute from now. Right now, what can you count on? Perhaps the sun is shining, there is a roof over your head. If you find yourself going into the future and the possibility of losing that roof, for instance, come back to the present. Worry truly doesn’t exist in the present—it’s always a concern about the future.
- I find the practice of gratitude very helpful when I start to worry. Yes, the bad thing might happen and right now, what can I appreciate? What can I be thankful for? What is still good and whole and true? Seeing the wider picture takes us out of fight/flight/freeze.
- Worry well. This is a technique I learned from my teacher Dawna Markova. When you’re worried, she says, you’re stuck in the middle of a scary story so take yourself all the way through to the end. Keep asking yourself, “and then what happens? And then what happens? And then what happens?” as you play your worry out. When I do this, usually my creative mind takes over and I can imagine an outcome I can live with.
- Here’s a suggestion from Steven Johnson, Co-founder of Brainwave Research UK, from his recent newsletter: “Ask yourself, `What did I do to solve this?’ This is a powerful way to stimulate creative problem solving because the assumption is that you have already solved it – and the brain can’t tell the difference, so it just goes about answering the question. Ask, and then go do something else (stop thinking about the challenge and let your brain do its thing). One effective method is to ask this question at the beginning of your meditation session, before you do something that requires intense focus or physical exertion, or just before bed – in all three instances, you are so busy that you can’t think about the challenge you’re having, and you give your subconscious a chance to find solutions….When you get an inspired idea (your inner wisdom speaking up) take action immediately, without hesitation.”
Ultimately, action is the antidote to worry. Because when we are taking action, we are using our power, our ability to impact the future and affect the outcome. In this way, we bend the future away from what we don’t want (our worry) and toward that which we want to bring into being. And that is powerful warriorship!
Written by MJ Ryan
Photo by Aleks Marinkovic