The subtle art of worrying

Decades ago I stopped making New Year’s resolutions for obvious reasons.

My story is probably like yours. I generally start with aspirational motivation to transform my life in some way. I invest lots of energy, monitor my behavior, and try to arm wrestle myself into surrendering to the resolution. But eventually I succumb to the fatigue of day to day living and the resolution becomes a distant memory.

Certainly, the older we get, the more jaded we become with making resolutions to improve our lives. It’s just easier to leave things the way they are. I resolve to be more patient when my husband insists on folding bath towels the wrong way, but it’s just easier to nag him. The familiar old patterns are hard to break—his towel-folding technique and my predictable response.  But this year I might make an exception to my moratorium on New Year’s resolutions and try to break a worrisome pattern. That is, I worry, and I’m weary of the energy it takes to worry.

Worriers, are you with me? Does worry run through you like a low-grade electrical current? Is there an endless stream of mind chatter urging you to consider the disastrous things that might occur in the course of daily living?

For me, it’s not disastrous in the sense that tsunamis are.  It’s more like a swarm of bees, potentially ominous and unpredictable. What if my pension fund goes belly up? What if I miss my Signal Sunday deadline? Are my memory lapses the first sign of dementia?

There is interesting research on worry and anxiety related to brain function. In the old days (like 200,000 years ago), Neanderthals’ stress was immediate and physical. A wild animal is chasing me and I need to run, or I’m hungry and need to forage for food. When I resolve the problem, like running to safety or finding a tender morsel, my anxiety is resolved and composure is restored. Fast forward to the present, the same fear portion of the brain (amygdala) that triggered our Stone Age ancestors to flee the danger of a saber toothed tiger still functions, but today’s stresses are different, like dealing with traffic jams or unpaid bills. This fight or flight response can’t distinguish between a real physical threat and a perceived threat, such as job security or a pet’s health.

Because the physiological response bypasses the rational mind when it is activated, we perceive everything as a possible threat to our survival. This initiates a chain of chemical, respiratory, and other bodily reactions that put us in a state of high alert.  We see the world through a lens of fear leading to sustained toxic stress which doctors warn us can create health problems, anxiety and depression. Who knew worrying was so scientific?

But if you’re worrying about worrying too much, take heart. Kate Sweeny, researcher and psychology professor at U.C. Riverside, says, “Despite its negative reputation, not all worry is destructive or even futile.”

For example, if I worry about skin cancer, I am more likely to slather on sunscreen, which has a health benefit. If I’m worried about car accidents, I’m more likely to wear seatbelts or not drink and drive. Worry can also insulate us from disappointment in the event that something falls apart. If I have worried that it would rain on the day of our country club garden wedding, and it does, I don’t feel blindsided and I can better cope with the disappointment.  Worrying about something keeps it at the front of our minds and pushes us to action. The unpleasant feeling of worry motivates us to find ways to reduce our worry.

The catch is that the benefits are correlated with moderate amounts of worrying. In the right amount, worry can serve as a cue that a situation requires action and can help us make judgements and decisions.

Moderate amounts of worry, for example, can motivate people to perform better at school and the workplace if they are concerned about grades or promotion. Kate Sweeny says that “Worrying in the right amount is better than not worrying at all.”

So I guess I’ll try what the professionals tell me— practice getting out of my dinosaur brain so that I can think clearly and quiet the chatter. I’ll use humor to ease worry because fear loses power in the face of laughter. My skills will be tested by formidable worries like whether my daughter will ever get married and when my grandson will start sleeping through the night. I’ll learn to dance with worry, but I’ll take the lead in this tango. I won’t stop worrying entirely because, after all, almost everything I worry about never comes to pass.

Mary Petersen is a retired COC English Instructor and 30 year SCV resident.

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