Written By: Dr. Michael Mandrusiak, Registered Psychologist
A Worry Story
You are sitting at the dinner table having spaghetti with a family member. The person across from you is describing a funny incident from their day as you take a bite of a tomato-sauce-covered meatball (or veggie ball, if you prefer).
A tangy aroma wafts upward from your plate. But you barely notice the smell or register what they are saying because you are worrying about a conversation you had earlier that day with a friend. They had looked upset and you are worried that you might have accidentally said something to offend them.
You worry that they might be upset with you. Maybe they will say something to other people you know, and other people will be upset with you or judge you. Maybe this will hurt your relationships or your reputation. Maybe you would be left with no one who liked you and you would be friendless and lonely…
If you stop and take a moment to be honest with yourself, you will probably realize that most of these feared outcomes are not likely to happen. Besides, you realize that you can check in with these people tomorrow and chances are good that you can always repair any hurt feelings – if any feelings were hurt to begin with!
But you cannot shake the distressing feeling of anxiety that comes with not knowing what is going to happen. The uncertainty is so hard to bear.
“Hey, are you listening? It’s like you’re not really here,” your family member says.
You realize that not only do you not know what your dinner companion has just said, you barely tasted the food that you just swallowed.
Human beings have this amazing ability to identify problems and potential problems, anticipate hypothetical future scenarios and mentally construct plans to address actual or potential challenges. It is called worry.
Worry can be helpful for all of these reasons, to a degree. But sometimes people cannot stop worrying, even when they have thought about the program enough to get any planning benefits they are going get from the exercise.
At that point, the worry is simply taking the focus away from other valued activities, such as enjoying dinner with a family member, in the above example.
So why do people engage in excessive worry? Why do they keep worrying long past the point where it stops being helpful?
An Allergy to Uncertainty
Excessive worry is like an allergy to uncertainty. When there is a problem or potential problem left unresolved and you don’t know the outcome, the sense of not knowing leads to an uncomfortable feeling of anxious distress.
Something bad might not happen. It probably won’t happen. But it could happen – and that small chance means there is uncertainty.
If there was something you could do to get rid of that uncertainty and guarantee yourself of the outcome – with 100% certainty – you probably would just do it right then and there, just to escape the uncomfortable feeling you are having.
But there are many times where you cannot immediately resolve the uncertainty through action. Sometimes the circumstances are outside of your control. There is nothing that you can do about it.
Sometimes you need to wait to do something about it and trying to do something right now – like calling your friend at three o’clock in the morning to check to see if they are mad at you – would be inappropriate or could make the situation worse.
In those situations, the best thing for you to do is to manage your emotion and focus your attention on things that are more valuable or productive in this moment.
That task is more easily said than done because our mind tells us to do the opposite – that it is better to keep worrying about the situation because the uncertainty is too dangerous to take our eye off of, even for a moment.
If only you keep worrying, your mind reasons, then you will have more control over the situation. Sadly, the worry has already reached a point of diminishing return and does not provide anything more that is constructive.
Worry only serves to prevent you from being present in and enjoying other valued activities in your day.
How to Manage Excessive Worry
If you are one of the many of us out there who worries excessively, here are a few things you can do that are often helpful:
- Do something that you can actually do (if there is something that you can do) and is appropriate to do, to solve the problem right now
- Observe when you are engaging in excessive (i.e., unhelpful) worry, name it, and gently refocus your attention on a valued activity
- Use deep breaths or guided meditation to help to calm yourself
- Remind yourself that you can handle the situation and will take appropriate future action when it is appropriate to do so
- Think of allowing and tolerating uncertainty as a behavioral experiment – I am curious what will happen when I do not seek immediate resolution (approaching the situation like an experiment allows you to adopt a curious mindset instead of a fearful one)
- Engage in light to moderate exercise
- Use distraction
- Find a trusted friend or confidant to talk with
- IF you need additional help, consider reaching out to a therapist for support
Contact Brentwood Counselling Centre today to see how we can help you with your worry.