Why we shouldn’t defend worry
A number of years ago, I attended a family gathering in which I ended up having a discussion with a mother about worry. She asked me how she could stop being a “Worrier”, and we discussed in detail all of her worries and the impact it was having on her.
She listed that she felt like the rock for everyone else, and that she needed to worry in order to ensure everyone was safe. But this was having a huge drain on her emotional capacity and she was starting to burn out and become depressed. Interestingly, however, when the subject turned towards potential areas to change, there was a defensiveness and protection of her worrying. This mother was in a stuck position; knowing that worrying was hurting her, but feeling like it was the only thing that helps her feel in control.
I left that discussion stumped of what went on, and where the conversation could have gone. It had such an impact that I still reflect upon it to this day.
Worry as a concept
How can worry be categorised? In common conversation, we might discuss worry as a mental state: “I am so worried about them”, a feeling, “I get so worried” or a thought process, “I can’t stop worrying”
For this article, I will categorise worry as a mental behaviour, as a mental activity we engage in as a response to an event and the perception of threat or fear.
A mother worries about how her children are getting on at school.
An employee may worry about what is going to come up in their annual review.
A husband worries why their partner is seeming so distant recently.
In my native land of Ireland, it is common to hear mothers self-identify as a “Worrier”, as some sort of positive personality characteristic. I hope by the end of this article, we can start to break this down.
The Impact of Worry
As humans, we are pattern finding and meaning-orientated beings. In this way, we have small tolerance for uncertainty and the feelings of powerlessness that come with it. Worry is one way to respond to that uncertainty. And in small amounts, worry can be healthy. However, if it becomes persistent or chronic, it can lead to severe distress. Worry that is ineffective, unhealthy and self-perpetuating – an ineffectual strategy to deal with distressing situations – is the kind of worry that this article aims to explore.
An example: you receive an email from your manager requesting your attendance at a meeting the following day. You begin to worry about what the meeting could be about, what you could have done wrong, what if you get fired etc. You begin to get anxious about what your manager is going to say, and it affects your performance for the rest of the day, your evening is preoccupied with worry and you enter the meeting nervous and defensive.
By the act of worrying, it influences our quality of life; inhibiting creative problem-solving and rational thinking. And in this example, the simple step that was missed: replying to the manager to ask for an agenda for the meeting.
In his book titled “The Gift of Fear”, Gavin de Backer states that “worry is the fear we manufacture”. In this way, it is something we put ourselves through, even if it causes stress, anxiety and just makes things worse.
In reality, worry does the following:
Provides an illusion of control
- In response to uncertainty or anxiety, worrying can serve as an attempt to regain a form of control over the situation.
- A person may worry in order to prepare for the worst, so that they won’t be surprised or hurt.
- A person may feel that if they worry, it will stop the situation from happening.
Helps avoid discomfort
- As an alternate form of control-finding, worry can serve to avoid difficult thoughts or decisions.
- If we worry, we feel like we are doing something, and avoid taking proactive but uncomfortable actions.
- Worrying can help to avoid acknowledging that a situation is outside the sphere of our control, while also helping us to believe that we are doing something.
To hold on to connectedness
- Worry can serve to remain connected with others. A parent may worry about their child while they are at university, as a proof to themselves that they still love them. Have you ever heard, I only worry because I care?
- It’s a way to reinforce the belief that you are needed. Again, the parent of a child that is beginning to exercise more independence may experience a sense of loss at this change. In order to relieve this loss, a parent may engage in worry to fulfil a perceived role that the child needs.
Out of these factors, the true nature of worry can be uncovered.
In the process of worry, we are attempting to soothe underlying tensions relating to control, change and belonging. No matter what worry is doing, I hope it is clear that it is only superficial. Not only does it not resolve these tensions, chronic worry creates a negative-feedback loop of suffering.
In this loop, worry provides a relief to an emotional distress. However, since the situation has not been resolved, this relief is temporary, and when it returns the impulse is to do whatever helped previously: to worry more. Worry is self-fulfilling, and can become more intense and reinforced as a behaviour the longer this loop continues. As a behaviour, worry is a core component and precursor to more severe anxiety disorders such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
It is an important step to change your perception of worry, by acknowledging that worry is something which is both unhelpful and actively destructive to your wellbeing. From there you can begin to readdress the underlying reasons for your worry behaviour, and replace the worry with more helpful behaviours. A particular message to the readers that self-identify as “Worriers”; my offer is to face the hard reality that you are causing yourself suffering and that worrying does not need to be a part of your identity – it is a behaviour that can be changed.
The process to address worry that I have used is based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The best time to start this process is when you are in a calm and prepared mindset, definitely not while you are in the middle of worrying. However, you may also find it helpful to use this process as you begin to engage in worry. Here are four ACT-inspired steps to readdressing your worry:
1. Recognise your Patterns. Reflect on when you are most likely to engage in worry. Is it in response to a particular situation, relationship or emotion?
Ask yourself, how does this worry serve me? How is this worry affecting myself and others?
2. Label the Worry. Try to label the situation and feelings that are leading you towards engaging in worry. Look at the options above and identify which type of worry you might be tempted to engage in. Importantly, label worry as an unhelpful behaviour. This will serve to distance you from your behaviours, and allow you to evaluate them.
3. Practice Acceptance. Acceptance is an on-going process and begins with an attitude of openness and compassion towards yourself. In recognising your feelings and the underlying tensions behind your worry you will begin the process of addressing these issues. Accept that you may feel the temptation to worry, and recognise that there are other options available to you. Acceptance can take the form of:
- Take time for some Mindfulness: take 10 deep “box” breaths and allow an openness to notice your feelings and impulses.
- Talk with friends and family about your reason for worrying.
- Engage in something personally meaningful instead of worry.
Practicing tolerance of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, and the acceptance of uncertainty can be hugely beneficial to the maintenance and nurturing of positive mental health.
4. Act in line with your beliefs and values. Understanding and accepting the underlying needs the worry was trying to address, gives you more information to make more values-congruent decisions in the future. Reflect upon the situation and identify alternative options to the situation you are experiencing that will be more in line with how you see yourself interacting with the world. This may include some problem-solving, tolerating uncertainty or seeking support from others. The important part of this step is to commit to doing something different.
These steps can be done as part of your own process, but it is always helpful to get the support of a trusted individual or a trained professional. If the content of this article resonates with you and you would like to begin the process of overcoming your worry, I can be contacted through my profile below.