This is part one of a “Calm Your Worries” series.
Do you or does someone you love “qualify” as a chronic worrier? If you worry too much, it can make life pretty miserable. Let’s start by taking a look at what I consider chronic worry and the many ways it can manifest in you or someone you love.
Examples of Chronic Worry
The best way to demonstrate the difference between manageable levels of worry and what I call chronic worry is to look at some examples.
Frequently I wake up feeling worried. I’m not always even sure what I’m worried about. Then I think that I just must be an unhappy, miserable person. This thought frightens me. Now I’m unhappy AND scared! Then I find it hard to get up and face my day, and I tell myself that I guess I don’t like my life. Every day now feels like a chore. I don’t think my life is that bad on the surface, but I don’t like living this way.
I always feel like there is some problem that I need to think about. My mind races and races, but I don’t really feel like I get solutions. One thing will get fixed and the next presents itself. There seems to be no relief. I can’t imagine not feeling like this and the alternative feels like not caring at all. I’m exhausted!
People say that I complain a lot and have a negative view of myself. I guess I do, but I don’t really know what to do about that. It just feels like reality to me. Maybe I’ll just stop having an opinion.
Sometimes I think it shows that I feel nervous. I avoid doing things that worry me. My family seems to feel sorry for me or maybe they think I should just get my act together. It feels embarrassing, really. I feel like no one gets me and that makes me want to stay away from them.
Others don't feel yucky like I do. It drives me crazy. I feel like I should be smart enough to know how to get rid of this feeling. But I can’t. I feel broken, like others know something that I don’t understand.
Perhaps you see your worry in these examples.
Facing certain situations in life (money, career, love life, adulthood) feels too overwhelming, so I just stress about them instead. People get mad at me for not showing more initiative and motivation. I get mad at myself for not showing more initiative and motivation! It feels hopeless.
A lot of times I think I’m having fun when I’m out with people. Then after I get home I start thinking that I was talking too much or said something wrong. I’ll think about a friend looking at me “funny” or that I maybe brought the wrong food or gift. Then I feel awful. How could I be so stupid? This always happens. I think I’ll just swear off getting together with others for a while.
A month ago I took a week off of work to relax. I really needed the time off and I was really looking forward to it. By the first afternoon I was stuck. My mind would not stop racing! I worried that I didn’t have the money to do what I wanted and saw all kinds of things that I had been putting off that I did not want to do. Calling someone to get together seemed wise, but I just couldn’t convince myself to do it. What a wasted week!
If these situations sound familiar to you then you may identify with the problem of chronic worry and some of the ways in which it is robbing you of being able to enjoy your life, maintain your social life, and cultivate intimacy with your closest loved ones.
For over fifteen years, I have helped hundreds of clients learn to minimize the damaging effects of worry run wild and harness the power of worry. That’s right. Although these scenarios point to the down sides of chronic worry, your worry can be an asset when you restore it to health with practical techniques.
Why it is So Important to Address Chronic Worry Today
Not to make you more nervous or anything, but there are a number of really valid reasons why it would be better if you didn’t continue to suffer in the worried way. Here are just a few:
1. Worry becomes a habit.
Worry can quite easily become a pattern of reactions in your body and mind. The more you “practice” these patterns as you live your life, the more they become your knee-jerk or habitual response.
Now, before you begin to berate yourself, know that this is absolutely not your fault. It is simply a part of life and the way humans are wired. If you could just do things differently and, voila, you felt better, you would. However, in my experience, it just doesn’t work that way.
Your body has learned to go to worry as a resource. (Yes, a resource.) At this point, even trying to solve worry becomes, well…worry. So now is the best time to learn ways to gently practice moving out of the worry pattern. It will take a bit of effort, but believe me, it’s worth it. And every day you practice this new mindset will make a difference in the long run for your well being.
2. Worry can lead to depression or panic.
Have you noticed that when you worry a lot, you get to a point where you just can’t do it anymore? Go back to review those examples above. Notice how each scenario ends with what I would call a “quit” or a “bummer” such as: I’ll stop…; I’m exhausted; I won’t…; etc.
If you stop worrying, that would be the best thing, right? Well, not necessarily. There are natural ways that the body tries to calm us that can lead to depression rather than connection. For example, for me in the past when I experienced some moderate worry, I would get fearful, inadvertently replacing the mild worried feeling with a major worry. As my worry ramped up, I would hear myself say: Things are really, really bad or I am really, really in trouble here! This major worry felt even worse, and I couldn’t tolerate it for long.
As an alternative to feeling panicky, I began to quickly slip into a mindset of: Life is impossible or miserable to I am impossible or miserable and inevitably: I’m just done. And if you think about it, it makes logical sense, right? I thought if I was “done” I could feel calm.
It is really natural for the body to “quit” in order to get calm. But “done” begins to feel depressing. And does a depressed state feel better than worry? Not over time.
3. Worry is contagious.
From a number of standpoints, worry can be felt and “contracted” by others. This is a common experience that we don’t often think about, one that has important implications in our relationships with others.
Imagine meeting someone who is exhibiting worry – maybe they are constantly apologizing, shaking, over-thinking, or avoiding. Notice how your own body feels when exposed to these symptoms in another person. Even dog trainers will first check the sensation in the owner’s body to help a pet dog regulate its behavior. Worry energy can be felt by others.
Stephen Porges, PhD, neuroscientist, calls this phenomenon “neuroception” – just like perception, but the unspoken recognition between nervous systems. Roughly translated: I feel you!
Worry can also be contagious or disseminated in a larger way over generations: Grandpa worried and this pattern was reenacted by one of his daughters who had children and taught this style to her children and so on.
The Biology of Worry
There is also evidence that feelings, like worry, can influence our genetic expression. Scientists call the study of this occurrence “epigenetics.” Simply put, epigenetics is the study of biological mechanisms that will switch genes on and off.
Tara Swart, PhD reports in her 2018 article in Forbes Magazine:
Epigenetic influences range from our physical environment: homes, offices, and neighborhoods, to our upbringing and our current lifestyle behaviors. The relationship between gene expression and environment is symbiotic, exactly as the relationship between our brain and our environment is interlinked. The brain is directed by, but also directs gene expression, influencing and altering it constantly.
If your lifestyle has been saturated in worry, it may be impacting your genes!
4. Worry creates unintentional conflict and disconnection inside and out.
Chronic worry can create tension and polarization between you and others. Have you ever noticed that when you mention a worry, it is sometimes validated and then counterbalanced by kind, well-meaning people with a statement that disagrees? For example:
Worrier: “I have so much to do tomorrow. I’ll never get it done!”
Friend: “Oh, you’ll get it done! I know you. You’ve got this. Just write it all down.”
Worrier: “Yeah, I guess so. But I am really, really busy this time, and I don’t think I’m going to do that well on my next assignment at all.”
Friend: “You say that every time. You’re really smart! You always fuss about it and then you do way better than I do.”
Worrier: [Thinking]: But you don’t get it. It is really hard for me. Now I can’t even talk to you about it. I am not like you. You overestimate my ability. You are as sick of me as I am.
The Polarization of Worry
Notice in this example how the worried person felt at first connected to their friend, just a simple admission of worry, and then in a moment, each was promoting opposite viewpoints. Notice how, if the conversation did continue, each person might try to prove the opposite point even more.
This is polarization: In an effort to explain the worry, we end up defending it. As we defend, we move farther and farther away from the other person, who feels more and more compelled to “help us out,” resulting in a minor conflict. We also end up more linked to our worry, fortifying it at every turn. And, unfortunately, this conflict between friends will likely be the next topic for the chronic worrier to worry about.
Worry can also cause internal polarization. Just as in the conversation above, I’m sure you can imagine the internal conversations you have around worry and how you can create little arguments with yourself.
5. The pace of modern living amplifies worry.
Life in the modern world is fragmented and involves a great deal of switching between one activity to another. Our mobile phones beep and blink at us non-stop. Social media demands us to maintain a public persona with daily updates. Advertising permeates our media landscape, constantly reminding us how we are lacking. And the news cycle relentlessly showers us with “Breaking News” about everything that is going wrong with the world today.
Is it any wonder that so many people in our time struggle with chronic worry?