Are you letting worry rule your life?

Gandhi said “There’s nothing that wastes the body like worry”. I think he was definitely onto something there. Having spent the first quarter of my life (that is assuming I’ll live to my desired 100 years) as a major-league worrier I can attest to how draining and consuming a mind full of constant worry can be. It leaves no room for many of the pleasures that life offers.

But as worriers it’s not as if we choose to be this way. It’s just how we’re wired up that’s all. Right up until my early thirties my mind was chock full of potential threats and things that were going to go wrong. My way out of this was using whatever methods of distraction I could find. I really felt as if my mind was the enemy that was constantly out to get me.

Harvard professor Daniel Wegner, known for the white bear experment that explored dealing with unwanted thoughts, talks about how thoughts are just messengers, and that they will keep knocking at your door if you don’t acknowledge them. He showed that ignoring your thoughts is the worst thing you can do.

Worry by it’s very nature is a future-based state of mind. None of us worry about stuff that’s already happened do we? Worry is all about what’s going to happen, or to put it more accurately, what we think is going to happen. So this future-based mindset whilst it may be good at helping us plan and get lots of things done, can mean we miss out on the present moment. If you’re constantly thinking next, next, next, next, what room can there possibly be for the now, now, nows of life?

I can genuinely say, I don’t think I knew what the present moment even looked like for the first thirty years of my life. Yes, ok I may have glimpsed it occasionally, but to me it was pretty much a foreign concept. I was always too busy trying engaged in the perpetual cycle of completing my to-do lists.

One clever survival mechanism we have built in to us goes by the name of the ‘Negativity bias’. This bias has helped us pay attention to and think about physical threats that could harm us. I’m sure the very fact our species is here today owes something to the negativity bias. It’s very clever that evolution stuff. but what this means to those of us that no longer walk around wearing fur for underpants is that we have a mind that far more easily notices and stores negatives than positives. This is why you are far more likely to remember a criticism than a compliment of equal weighting.

Each time we worry about something we can be in effect triggering our stress response to varying degrees. Our nervous system doesn’t know the difference between imagined and real threats. Think about how real the fear can feel when you’re watching a horror film, even when you know it’s not real. So being an around-the-clock worrier can have an impact on our health for sure.

A possible cure?

Knowing what we now know about thoughts, and taking a bit of advice from professor Wegner, a simple solution to curbing excessive worry and giving yourself some mental peace is to set aside five minutes every day where you get you’re worrying done. When your mind notices that you’re setting aside the same time every day for worry it doesn’t have to be concerned about it’s messengers being ignored. It nows that at say 6pm every day it’s ‘worry time’.

A way to make this even ore effective is to keep a worry journal, where you note stuff as it comes up throughout the day. This in itself is a great form of offload, as your mind knows that it’s thoughts are being acknowledged to be dealt with later. Knowing that you’ve set it aside until later your mind will stop nagging you about it.

I personally find having set worry time to be a powerful habit. My mind is now so into the habit that over the years it’s just stopped bombarding me with worries all day long as it knows it will get to say it’s piece during worry time. Just note it then devote five minutes to it later on. ‘Note and devote’ for a month and see how you feel…

Jonathan Pittam

Mental health & Resilience trainer

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