Mindful Worry

The first noble truth: We all worry. Some more than others. And some worry so much that it actually enters the realm of a diagnosable condition referred to as general anxiety disorder (GAD). In GAD, there is frequent cognitive rumination and worried thoughts, accompanied by a variety of physiological manifestations such as chronic musculoskeletal tension.

Mindful worry - Worry is universal

Mindful worry – Worry is universal

Why do we worry? The answer is fairly straightforward. We worry out of fear. In a sense, worry is an attenuated rehearsal of our fears. Often times, worrisome thoughts take the form of “What if?”. “What if my child gets hurt?”, “What if I get laid off at work?”, “What if I fail this test?”, “What if my wife or girlfriend gets attracted to someone else?”, “What if i can’t pay my bills?” etc. etc. etc. The number and variety of worries we can entertain are inexhaustible. And if we didn’t worry, we would probably even worry about that. We are superstitiously conditioned to believe that by worrying, we can somehow control events and outcomes. So therefore, we may be fearful that if we didn’t worry, bad things would befall us or our loved ones.

With a little introspection we can see that when we are worried and anxious, we are not in a present state of mind. We are sometimes in the past, ruminating about transpired events which caused us pain. But most frequently, our mind is caught in the future, anticipating events which we fear might occur. And yet, we at some level know that worrying cannot help us. It only twists us up inside and can often undermine our ability to cope with and adapt to actual circumstances when they inevitably arise. And as Mark Twain once wrote, “The worst things in life never happened”. Thus, most of our fears are never actually realized. And if they do come to pass, then all the worry in the world would most likely not have prevented them.

Now, behavioral learning theory would predict that worry, which can be stated as being exposure to fear eliciting cues, through repeated exposure, should in theory, over time habituate or extinguish and therfore diminish in intensity and frequency. And yet, we can readily see that this, in fact does not occur. Our worries appear to continue in perpetuity. Why is this? It is because the exposure to the fear cues is only of a very partial nature and degree. We only actually touch upon our fears, but not nearly enough to expose the full nature and extent of our fears sufficient to allow habituation to take place. Just enough to perpetuate the endless anxiety, angst and ceaseless suffering to which we all are subjected to.

Can there be such a thing as beneficial worrying? I think it is important here to point out the difference between planning and worrying. Planning can be viewed as a deliberate, proactive problem solving strategy aimed at considering adaptive solutions to anticipated or present difficulties. Planning might involve sitting down with pen and paper (how antiquated) or a computer, and writing down our concerns, and possible steps at achieving a solution to problems, issues or concerns. Often we may not have all the information to address a particular issue and so we can research additional resources to help us with a particular issue. My wife is frequently reminding me how wonderful a resource the internet can be to tap into information regarding a nearly limitless scope of issues. With her encouragement, I learned how to fix a broken clothes drier and sand hardwood floors by watching Youtube videos on these topics. Now, since I was raised in Bronx apartment, I had extremely little exposure to such things and so I had to face my own anxieties to tackle such projects. The point here is if we don’t have the knowledge, skills or abilities to address issues in our lives, there always people and resources available, often for free, to help us. It is never unwise, to ask for help though for many of us, especially males, that can be very difficult.

A final point here is that planning, when possible, should be conducted in a very specific time and setting. In other words, when planning, plan. In this manner, it remains contained and doesn’t spill over and contaminate the rest of our time. So do your planning at a desk or wherever you tend to do work. Don’t do it in your bedroom or other places which should be associated with more pleasurable activities. If thoughts or concerns enter your mind at other times, which they most certainly will, write them down on your smart phone, or memo pad (remember those?). And then, when you can more fully examine and explore solutions in a constructive manner, then by all means, proceed.

In the next post, we will explore methods to mindfully expose the fears and anxieties that lie at the root of worry.

You are all cordially invited to post comments. Don’t worry about how it might sound or appear. But if you do, worry mindfully:)


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2 Comments. Leave new

  • Just discovered your website, and find your posts most interesting.

    I like the distinction in this blog between planning and worrying. Many years ago, on a small boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I “discovered” how ridiculous it was to worry about things you couldn’t do anything about — like the weather or the currents or a whale hitting our boat. But it wasn’t much of a stretch to realize that it made no more sense to worry about getting onto the NY subway before the door closed, or whether my staff got a report done on time. You do what you can, and then let it go. It’s a little bit like faith!

    • mm
      May 8, 2013 8:04 am

      Thanks for the comment Mary. Yeah, so I guess being in a little boat in the middle of a vast ocean can dramatically place life into perspective. The astronauts who had the opportunity to look at earth from the lunar surface reported similar shifts in perspective. I suppose, whether we realize it or not, we are all in a little dinghy bobbing around the vast ocean of life. Of course, in the frenetic pace and drama of everyday life, it is difficult to maintain this perspective. So we must take some time to actively keep inventory and mindfully embrace our fears. Then perhaps we can develop a little faith and acceptance.


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