NOTE: This post was originally published on my previous blog, The Healing Project.
This message is a cautionary tale from a longtime “worrywart” (or as my father-in-law used to say, “worryhorse”). I have wasted many hours and sacrificed endless enjoyment by worrying about all sorts of things, most of which never came to pass. It is my hope that my insights today will help other worriers to reform their ways and increase their happiness in life.
Reasons Not to Worry
I recently listened to an episode of the Happiness Hour from radio talk show host, Dennis Prager. The focus of this hour was on worrying, so I knew I needed to listen carefully. Unlike many people who have “blind spots” in terms of their weaknesses, I knew full well how much of a detriment my habitual worrying was to my life and my happiness.
Dennis Prager stated that there are two powerful reasons to break the habit of worrying:
- Most of what we worry about never comes to pass.
- When one is worrying about what might happen, it is impossible for him to be happy in that moment.
Freakish Accidents and Ailments
Let me explore both of these reasons and relate some personal experiences. In the past few years, there have been some high-profile celebrity illnesses and deaths, some of them from rare or “freakish” accidents or ailments. Two which come to mind are the death of actress Natasha Richardson from a seemingly minor skiing accident and the near-death of singer Bret Michaels from a rare type of brain hemorrhage that strikes without warning.
After I read about the death of Natasha Richardson, I started to become terrified after even a minor head bump which would occur around my house. I worried that I would suffer a fatal brain bleed like that of Ms. Richardson. I was so fearful that I even went to the emergency room after bumping my head on an open cabinet door back in April 2009. While I did feel dizzy and lightheaded, I learned that most dangerous head injuries are coupled with unconsciousness or severe symptoms within a short time period after the injury.
Many Worrywarts Out There…
During my ER visit, I was given a CAT scan which revealed no hemorrhaging and was sent home shortly thereafter with instructions to rest in order to recover from the slight concussion I had experienced. I was also told that the incidence of ER visits for head injuries had increased exponentially since the death of Natasha Richardson. Evidently, I’m not the only worrywart out there…
It is common for people to worry about being struck with a life-threatening ailment, but what we have to realize is that the worrying doesn’t do anything to prevent such illnesses from occurring. Yes, we can modify our lifestyles to minimize the risk of certain accidents and diseases and we should endeavor to do what we can to prevent ourselves from becoming ill. However, there is only so much we can do to mitigate our risk. After all, even a person who never leaves his or her house could be victim to earthquakes, tornadoes, break-ins, or errant plane crashes!
A caller to Dennis Prager’s show related a powerful experience. She was hit by a truck and was lying on the ground waiting for the ambulance to arrive. As many thoughts went through her head, including the fact that her injuries might prove fatal, she had one thought that was especially poignant to me as a lifelong worrier. She said that she wished she hadn’t wasted so much time worrying about breast cancer.
When we are in a state of worry, it is impossible for us to enjoy what we’re doing. Worry is almost always future-focused. We concern ourselves with what could happen and what might happen, and in the process we are not present to where we are and what we’re doing in the moment.
Personal Experience With Worry
My husband and I periodically travel and leave our two cats in the care of a very caring and competent pet-sitter. The pet-sitter comes to our house twice a day to feed our cats and give them love and attention. I know my cats are in good hands, but that doesn’t stop me from spending quite a bit of time and energy in worrying about them.
I noticed myself doing this on our recent trip to the San Francisco Bay Area and was able to stop myself. There I was on vacation and spending time with my mom and my husband at one of my favorite art festivals, yet my mind was at home in my apartment with my cats. Fortunately, I was able to alleviate much of my worry by checking in with the pet-sitter a couple of times and then using self-talk to shut off the automatic “worry machine” which seems to continually operate inside my head.
Gay Hendricks on Worry
Gay Hendricks provides some useful tips for eliminating worry in his excellent book, “The Big Leap.” He correctly asserts that “worry is useful only if it concerns a topic we can actually do something about, and if it leads to our taking positive action right away.” He suggests that when we find ourselves in the midst of worry, we ask ourselves the following two questions:
- Is it a real possibility?
- Is there any action I can take right now to make a positive difference?
If the answer to the first question is no, that should be a cue to stop worrying! If the answer to both questions is yes, you should take the action you’ve identified as soon as possible and then stop worrying. If the answer to question one is yes, but the answer to question two is no, then you should also cease your worry because it is counterproductive to your enjoyment of your one and only precious life.
Those Cancer Worries…
Let’s take the example of breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society’s website, the chance of developing invasive breast cancer at some time in a woman’s life is slightly less than 1 in 8 (12%). So developing breast cancer is indeed a real possibility for women. However, there may not be any action many women could take to reduce their chances of developing the disease. While an overweight smoker with a poor diet could make lifestyle changes which could help, many healthy women can do little to affect their chances of developing breast cancer (although regular screening is definitely recommended).
Powerful Words to Remember
Fortunately, I spend very little time worrying about breast cancer, but it would serve me well to remember the words of both Dennis Prager and Gay Hendricks when I find myself immersed in other worries. Some additional insights can be found in the Serenity Prayer, something which I’ve posted previously but bears repeating:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I vow to face my worrywart tendencies head on. Eliminating needless worry (and much of it is that!) is integral to my journey toward healing my life and becoming a happier and more peaceful person. If like me, you also suffer from consistent worrying, I invite you to join me in becoming an ex-worrier.