As an expecting first time mother, I am becoming aware of a level of worry that I had previously scoffed at. Will my son be destined for diabetes if I eat at Bojangles every now and then during pregnancy? What if I watch The Walking Dead and inadvertently cause him stress-hormone induced in utero trauma!? Whether we are parents, siblings, friends, or coworkers however, we tend to worry for people we care about. But is it helpful?
Worry is essentially anxiety in action. We experience the emotion of anxiety when we feel that a potential threat or loss is imminent, and we engage in worry as a means of managing that anxiety. Worry is the story line for anxiety, filling in the gaps of our present moment experience with fearful predictions of what will happen next. Unfortunately, all this mental effort seldom results in meaningful action. If you check in with your own worry history, how often has it actually helped? The more time we spend talking to ourselves about what might happen, the less time we devote to addressing what is happening in this very moment.
What we may not be aware of when we are caught up in the drama of our worry is that beneath the worry is a well of compassion. Test this out: Have you ever worried about something or someone that you didn't care about? Probably not. Inherent in worry is a desire for some situation involving some person we care about to be better than it is, which is a powerfully compassionate thought. So perhaps we can dig down past the worry to the compassion beneath in a way that both makes us more effective at managing difficulties and more at peace.
When worry arises ("What if I get a flat tire on the way to work?" "What if my marriage fails?" "What if my sister never leaves her abusive boyfriend?"), try to tap in to the compassion beneath. We can do this by first noticing how the anxiety feels in our bodies. Is it a humming energy or a sense of tension in the neck or chest? When we identify the physical elements of the feeling, we can then nurture that discomfort with kind words ("It's hard to care about something or someone and see them hurting" or "I feel this worry because I care for this person or want the best for myself"). We might then ask ourselves in this more aware, more accepting state whether or not there is anything to be done about the source of the worry. If we are worried that our tire will go flat because we haven't had them rotated in 3 years, we can address that worry directly by calling for an appointment with a mechanic. If we are worried that our father is going to relapse on alcohol again, we might remind ourselves that our father's behavior is beyond our control and attend compassionately to the distress that arises from not being able to fix people we care about.
Ultimately, worry is wasted energy--it doesn't change the past and does little to effectively address problems that arise in the present. As an alternative to worry, we can access our compassionate action--making changes mindfully where we can, and gently accepting and nurturing ourselves through those situations that do not allow for change.
Dr. Candice Creasman
Therapist, author, and counselor educator. Articles with tips and tools for living your most authentic and joyful life.