un-worry

how to stop worrying man smoothing forehead wrinkles

Worry and anxiety have been big themes in the last couple of weeks around here:

You may recall that I moved last year about this time into a new place. It’s the first time I’ve really felt “at home” in 20 years, and it has allowed me room to breathe for just $800/month.  The landlords invited me to “stay forever” and offered to keep this incredible rate as long as I chose to live here. Well, I just learned that they are now selling the house and that I need to move out, after only one short year.

As the book has just gone to print and speaking in conjunction with the book has only begun to open up, other sources of income have simultaneously and inexplicably dried up. I’m at a crossroads where I am faced with the choice to either find a way to allow these new options, as well as the ongoing mentoring, time to emerge and flourish – or to take on regular hours of “just-pay-the-bills” type work again, which would limit both my mentoring and speaking opportunities severely.  This is in conjunction with now needing to move and all the financial changes that will involve.

Just yesterday, I wound up in the ER for seven hours with extreme internal pain … and lots of time to wonder what it could be. That is, in fact, why today’s post is late in getting published. (No worries; it was not life-threatening. I’m home now recuperating and will live to see another day.)

Everyone faces moments or periods of anxiety, worry, fear or outright dread. No matter how serene we may be, sudden change, bad news or added challenges affect us.  However, the degree to which worry controls our mind or capsizes us remains within the realm of choice.

how to stop worrying quote: the degree to which worry controls our mind or capsizes us remains within the realm of choice.

This past week, a teen girl expressed to me that she was continually on the verge of tears due to worry about complications that may occur next school year. Here’s how our conversation went:

Me: The way your mouth looks right now is making me think something’s wrong today, so what’s up?

Girl: I’m just really worried about school. I’ve been in tears for days about it.

Me: But it’s summer vacation, right? You’re not even in school right now. Tell me more.

Girl: Well, the town is meeting with my school over that girl who was bullying me last year. They want to take me off of the protection plan that proves I wasn’t the problem, and now I don’t know what’s going to happen. And, another friend of mine sent me a picture of my ex-boyfriend talking to the bully girl, so now I think they are going out and will gang up on me.

Me: I can see why those might be scary things. But let me ask you an unrelated question. Is it possible that you could fall down my steps on your way out and break your leg?

Girl: [confused smile] What? Um … yeah, I guess. Why?

Me: Forget about why for right now. Is it possible that your hair will catch fire on the stove and burn off, leaving you completely bald?

Girl: [Laughing] Um …

Me: Is it possible?

Girl: I suppose so.

Me: And is it possible that a plane could be flying overhead right now and an engine might blow and fall off and come crashing through my roof where we sit?

Girl: Yeah, I guess it’s possible. But what does this have to do with school?  Are you just trying to take my mind off it?

Me: Nope. It has everything to do with school. The fact is that you aren’t in school right now. There is no bully in my living room. No ex-boyfriend.  It’s possible that at some point in the future, those things might be a problem – just like it’s possible you could break your leg, go bald or be crushed by falling plane fuselage.  But none of them is happening right now, are they?

Girl: Yeah, but, what if she does start bullying me again? I just don’t know what I’ll do. I feel like I have to prepare for whatever might happen now.

Me: No you don’t. All you’re doing when you worry is borrowing trouble from some invisible future, which may or may not even happen, and ruining a perfectly good now. This bully may grow up over the summer.  Her family could move to Topeka. [She laughs.] Your ex-boyfriend could have a sex change. [She’s still laughing.] It’s good to laugh, because we just don’t know what the future holds. So it’s laughably silly to try to guess at it, especially when all that does is cause us to feel miserable right now, where those problems don’t even exist. Whenever you start to worry, ask yourself if this problem is in front of you right now [I put my open palm two inches from my face]. If it’s not, just say, “That’s future-me’s problem.” Let’s try it. So is the bully here right now?

Girl: No, but …

Me: STOP! Is she here right now?

Girl: No.

Me: Then do you need to worry about her? Or is it “future-me’s problem”?

Girl: It’s future-me’s problem.

Me: And is your ex here right now? [I look under the couch.]

Girl: No.

Me: …

Girl: [Laughs] That’s future-me’s problem.

Here’s the approach (really the mental system ) that I use whenever that feeling of anxiety, worry or fear tries to worm its way into my thoughts:

1.  I ask myself right away, “Will this matter in a year [or a week, or tomorrow]?” If the honest answer is NO, it instantly helps me put things in perspective, because a NO means that I realize it will resolve itself at some point. But whether I answered this question NO or YES, I move on to the next step.

2.  I ask myself, “What can I do about this right now?” If I can think of an answer, I do that thing immediately. If I think someone may have misunderstood me, I call them. If I’m worried about a health concern or car issue, I call to make an appointment. If I assess that there’s nothing I can do right now, I move on to the next step.

3.  I ask myself, “What is the next thing I can do about this, and when?” Whatever I come up with, I jot it down on a piece of paper or in my phone’s Notes app, or record an audio note to self. This works wonders. Whenever this particular worry comes up again, I remind myself immediately that I can’t do anything about it right now, but that I’ve already recorded what I can do next, and when. Externalizing worry this way allows you to quite literally put it “out of mind” and focus on the here and now – as well as to sleep, if worry hits you during the night.

4.  If I assess that there is nothing I can do right now, and nothing I can do at any future time – I let it go. If the worry comes back, I tell myself that I’ve already considered all that I could do about it. It falls into the realm of what I cannot control, so thinking about it and guessing what might happen is a pointless distraction, a waste of valuable energy and a thief of happiness.

how to not worry: worrying about what I cannot control is a pointless distraction, a waste of valuable energy and a thief of happiness.

I can tell you first-hand that you really can discipline yourself to un-worry, by approaching life’s anomalies with a consistent mental system like this one.

If your worries are about things from your past, you may also benefit from this post: regret.

You can read more about handling worry, stressful situations and “irregular people” in the book, The Best Advice So Far.

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About Erik

Erik is an author, speaker, blogger, facilitator, people lover, creative force, conversationalist, problem solver, chance-taker, noticer and lover of life. He lives in the Boston area. "It's more about writing lives than writing pages." View all posts by Erik

20 responses to “un-worry

  • alternate reality | The Best Advice So Far

    […] a little less seriously in life. Motive speaks louder than actions. And if it’s an absolute fail, will it matter in a year (or even a week, or a day … or a minute later)? Don’t let fear lock you into the […]

    Like

  • Michelle Rene Goodhew

    This is a really great topic, thanks so much for sharing, I found your post extremely helpful 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      I appreciate the feedback, Michelle. It really does help to steer what I write. I’m glad you found some practical ideas in dealing with worry. As I just said to another reader, these have been life savers for me.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michelle Rene Goodhew

        I have always had trouble with over worrying. With the tips you brought forward here it helps me to put things into a much clearer perspective and save some valuable time and wasted emotions. Overall incorporating this gives me a lot of extra free time to focus on my business and my writing. Thanks again 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  • not fair | The Best Advice So Far

    […] told you in my last post that I was recently informed I’ll need to move from my new place, where I’ve only been for a […]

    Like

  • gina amos

    Sorry to hear you were unwell Erik, hope you are okay now. Thanks for the post on worry and anxiety. We all have an inbuilt worry and anxiety response. If we didn’t worry the human race would never have evolved.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Hi, Gina. So glad to see you back, and thanks for sharing your thoughts. I wonder if your ideas about the human race not having been able to survive without worry is a semantics issue. Animals have a fight/flight response, and that is necessary. I see this as different from worry, which is an abstraction: imagining futures that don’t exist in the here and now. I’m not sure unevolved man was even able to “live in an intangible future” like this, much less become immobilized by it. Again, I think it’s probably a semantics issue:

      Deep consideration that leads to actual planning? Great!
      Vigilance that leads to preparedness? Super!
      Consideration of past mistakes that leads to restitution or change in behavior? All for it!
      I see those things as different from worry or regret. But whatever words we use, if an emotional response is not productive – I say nix it.

      Like

  • Jed Jurchenko

    Glad your feeling better! I missed seeing your post in my in-box late Thurs evening & had wondered what had happened.

    I love #4 & will need to remember that. I’m a fixer & don’t like not being able to resolve things. Learning to not worry about issues we can’t solve now is important & definitely a skill worth learning. I’m getting there, slowly but surly. Thanks for a great post & an excellent reminder to let go of worry 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Erik

      It definitely is tough, Jed. And I wasn’t born with an ability to handle worry well. Truth be told, I was terrible at it early on. But with some rational thinking paired with consistently practicing my “list,” I was able to become a more peaceful guy who isn’t derailed by worry.

      After posting this, I added a link to a previous post, which I was going to refer you to anyway, given your work with blended families. Check it out if you haven’t already: regret.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Jed Jurchenko

        The picture in the post with the boy and the monster is perfect, & your story still has me laughing–a great illustration for the post!

        Your are so right, this is great advice for those of us in blended families. It’s easy to fall into the trap of regret. I especially like the advice at the end of the post:

        “Still, regret has no place. It changes nothing. Much as I suggest in regard to worry, once you have done all that can be done (which is often more than you think) — you can do no more. Accept the consequences as graciously as you can. But choose not to live under the cloud.”

        I 100 percent agree, clinging to regret is not worth it!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Erik

          Glad you got over to read that one, Jed. (And, yes, in rereading it myself, even these years later, I cringed and laughed at all the right places!) It’s really cool to me, to think about each of our words filtering through one another and, little by little, becoming part of one another’s thinking and how we help others. Certainly a two-way street.

          Like

  • sheepcarrot

    Great advice! I tend to be a huge worrier of stuff (sometimes to the point of being ill) so this was a wonderful post with points I shall try to remember next time worry strikes. Thank you!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Erik

      Hi, Katherine. Thanks for reading and getting real. I know it helps people to hear that they aren’t the only ones who wrestle with stuff. I might suggest taking Sean’s approach (below) of storing some steps that work for you in your phone’s NOTES app or on a little, sturdy card you can tuck away in your purse. If you’d like to borrow mine, here’s a simplified version you could use:

      1. Will this matter to me in a year?
      2. Can I do anything about it right now? If so, DO IT.
      3. Write down the next thing I CAN do and when.
      4. If I can’t do anything now or later … LET IT GO.

      Liked by 2 people

  • Jaime

    What a breath of fresh air! I loved your advice on worrying about the future: “All you’re doing when you worry is borrowing trouble from some invisible future, which may or may not even happen, and ruining a perfectly good now.” That’s such a great perspective to remember. I am a teacher and a mentor to high school students, so I’m glad I was directed to your blog.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Erik

      Hi, Jaime. So glad you stopped by and found a “gem.” Sounds like we have a lot in common, both in mentoring and education (but mostly a passion for helping people succeed). Heading to see what you’re up to on your own blog …

      Liked by 1 person

  • Sean P Carlin

    Really sound advice, Erik! Worry and anxiety tend to cause paralysis — inaction; but, if you walk yourself through those four simple steps, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to get a handle on both your apprehension and the root problem right at the moment it occurs. I’m given to momentary flare-ups of frustration all the time that I struggle to control even as I consciously acknowledge — right there in the moment — how irrational they are; I’m going to keep your four steps handy on my phone to remind me to deal with those bouts of vexation in an emotionally healthy way.

    Sorry to hear YOU’VE had a rough couple of days, my friend. If it helps, I don’t know anyone more capable of handling the unexpected challenges life sometimes throws at us with more grace and wisdom than you.

    Sean

    Liked by 2 people

    • Erik

      Hey, Sean. This part of what you said especially encouraged me: “I’m going to keep your four steps handy on my phone to remind me …” It’s always exciting to me when a real person reads or hears something I might say, and then devises a tangible action step for change. I hope other readers are challenged by your willingness to share that, and either borrow your idea or are prompted to come up with another of their own. And here again, I am reminded of the power of the “social” in “social media.”

      Thanks also for the encouraging words regarding my own situations. There’s still a “floaty feeling” when you don’t know how things will turn out. But, you’re right, removing the worry part of it allows action within that “floatiness,” which leads us to … well, whatever is next, rather than simply stalling out on whatever was last.

      Liked by 1 person

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