Isn’t it funny how the odd phrase from a film or book, or a passing comment from a friend, or even a stranger, can stick with you? I remember watching a film back in the eighties and hearing the expression,“Never marry worry till worry marries you.” It caught my attention because I’ve been prone to worrying all my life – even as a child – and I’ve strived to understand how to combat it (and also how to develop that thick skin that I’ve heard of. Is it like putting on a coat? And if so, where do you get one from? I’d be willing to cough up a lot of money for one of those!)
I’m no stranger to waking in the middle of the night and checking in with myself to see if there is anything I need to worry about. Once I’ve found something, I can be like a dog with a bone, refusing to let go until I’ve worried for at least a couple of hours. That said, I’m nothing if not resourceful and I was pleased to discover when I checked out “The Worry Cure” by Dr Robert Leahy recently that some of the coping strategies he recommends are ones that I’d already developed for myself.
One popular, recognised and apparently successful method of dealing with anxiety is the “wristband” technique. (You put an elastic band on your wrist, ping it and yell “Stop!” at yourself when your worry starts to manifest). It’s designed to bring you back to reality and get you “out of your head”. This seems like a good idea if you know that you are worrying about nothing and can literally make yourself “snap out of it”. However, pushing your problems to one side is not always the right thing to do.
Dr Leahy recommends instead that you first identify whether you are worrying about something “real” (i.e. something that is an actual threat or problem that needs solving) or simply “ruminating”, i.e. turning something abstract and probably unsolvable over and over in your mind. If it’s something real (money or health worries, perhaps, or problems at work) then you need to come up with strategies to solve them. I have found that if my worry is founded on something real, my transition back to a peaceful sleep is usually precipitated by keeping a notepad by my bed and listing potential solutions. Is there a reason why our house that’s for sale is not selling? Do we need to lower the price? Is there any solution to the amount of work I have on my desk? Do I need to ask for more help? Have I taken on too much? Do I have a health problem or am I just tired? Do I need to visit the doctor or maybe instead take a few days off work to catch up with the tasks that are piling up at home? Is getting those tasks done and setting my mind at rest more important than having that weekend away that I had planned? I will usually find an answer, get some sleep and act on it the very next day.
But is our worry well-founded and can we do anything about it? Or are we “ruminating” as Dr Leahy calls it? By this, he means chewing over and over a thought that we can’t accept, or dwelling on unanswerable questions, for instance “Why is life so unfair?”, “What did that person mean when they said that to me today?” or “Did I come across as rude/boring/stupid/uninteresting at that party?” Dr Leahy describes ways to combat this, stating that even if you could find a complete explanation for another person’s unfair behaviour towards you, or an answer to the impact of your behaviour on others, you would be no better off. His principles are based on changing your core beliefs and the negative thoughts that stem from them.
An approach I like is that recommended by The Barefoot Doctor (a well-known practitioner and teacher of Taoism) in his “Handbook for the Urban Warrior”. He states that worrying is nothing more than a conditioned, knee-jerk reaction to the life choices that present themselves to all of us. He likens life to an interactive game whereby you can press the “worrier” or the “warrior” button to decide how you want to experience it, i.e nervously and anxiously or feeling relaxed and confident. The outcome, he says, will remain the same either way! He says,“The process of attaining zero worry status takes between approximately two nano-seconds and forty-six years to complete, depending on how many times you forget.”
Hmmm. Well, that’s another thing. I’m somewhat forgetful too….