by Dr. Dale V. Atkins, August 2013
"Woulda Coulda Shoulda" and "What if" are, for some of us, worry "mantras."
So, what is it about worry that both helps and hurts us? And, what can we do to minimize its negative effects on ourselves and our loved ones?
Control: There are times in our lives when we feel that we have control when in fact, we actually have NO control. There are other times when we think we have no control when, in fact, we do! Often, when things appear hopeless, we worry about what could have or should have been. Instead of focusing on re-thinking what already happened, we can muster our inner resources, think about what needs to be addressed, consider options, make decisions, and take action. Healthy worry is important to our survival. Too much worry, however, as when we going over and over the same scenario as a perpetual loop that we cannot get out of, reinforces the worry and contributes to increased stress, which blocks opportunities to be objective and create alternative ways of viewing the situation.
Many of us are uncomfortable with uncertainty. But Life IS uncertain. Understanding what is and is not in our control is the key first step to managing worry. Letting go, and accepting there is no ONE perfect outcome, is the second critical step in the process.
We can also help to manage worry by learning to observe what is going on, without trying to or needing to control the situation. We can focus on taking care of ourselves and simply observing the world around us. Neuropsychologist, Dr. Amishi Jha, emphasizes the importance of staying in the present by imagining a remote control: when we worry, we tend to move our remote to either fast forward or rewind. We "woulda coulda shoulda" in rewind (or lament the road not taken) and we imagine all sorts of "what if's" (often creating complicated scenarios complete with catastrophic side effects) in fast forward. But when we press play, and stay in the present, we can observe, focus, and deal with where we are at this moment. This minimizes our living in regret or fear or becoming involved with, and attached to, an imaginary outcome for the future.
We have the ability to put off worry. Putting off worrying is not the same as not worrying. When we put off worry, we can control it and be disciplined about how we use it. If we are consumed with worry and it interferes with our functioning, we can consider delegating one 20-minute window a day for worry. If our "worry time" is at 1PM, when a worrisome idea pops up at 10 AM, we can write it down with a note, "worry about it at 1:00 PM." If we can get ourselves into this disciplined routine, soon we can remove the word "worry" and replace it with "focus." This helps to break the loop of chronic worrying.
Chronic worrying is much like an addiction, and can lead to stress, which leads to anxiety, which can lead to depression. Another way to deal with it is if we don't feel calm, ACT AS IF you are calm. PRETEND. Soon enough, we may find that if we "fake" it long enough, we may eventually begin to view our life from a different perspective. Our attitude changes.
We can also work on relaxing our brain. As we quiet our minds with deep inhalations and exhalations, focusing on our breath as we release tension, we can reduce the negative toll of worry.
When we can be in a calm place in our minds, we can make a plan. We can decide to seek professional help. We can find our cheerleaders who encourage us. We can take a close look at who we surround ourselves with and assess if we are spending too much time with people who encourage our worrying. This can be friends, family, or co-workers. If we can try sharing less with fellow worriers and surround ourselves more with positive people, we can increase our ability to relax.
Worry is an action. Fear is an emotion. There is an important difference. While there is no perfect outcome, we can make changes that will enhance the quality of our lives.