Worried to death
Anyone can spot a worrier. It’s written all over their face and it ain’t pretty.
When we were at school, teachers used to say, “Young people think it’s never going to happen to them. But it can happen to you, and it comes as a shock when it does.”
What exactly? Well, car accidents were the obvious thing then, but since those times other catastrophe scenarios have loomed up in our imaginations : public humiliations, terrorist attacks, failing an exam, getting a fatal disease, going bankrupt. But the teachers were wrong. Actually most people think it can happen to them and worry themselves into believing that in fact, it probably will.
Worrying is a highly addictive process. Primed by those who influenced us in our formative years, we labour under the illusion – mostly a subconscious one – that if we worry about something enough we will be well prepared when it happens, and that unlike the poor ignorants in the rest of the population, we will smugly ‘know’ that we are coping better precisely because we worried enough about it beforehand.
This is a poisonous mindset to be in and yet it provides an odd, masochistic pleasure, a kind of schadenfreude but applied to ourselves, a delight in victimhood, a conviction we are to be pitied and are aligned with suffering humanity. “Life is a vale of tears,” sighed one worry addict, and smiled in her superior wisdom as she heard about another disaster that had befallen an acquaintance. If we shrug off the warnings of a worrier, we sometimes hear, “On your head be it then.”
The addiction to worrying can provide an adrenaline rush, a state of high anxiety that gives us a sense of being fully alive. Many people are so hooked on imagining the worst that if there is nothing in their lives to worry about the sensation is weird and foreign, so they panic – thinking have I forgotten something, will something creep up and get me when I’m not looking? – and quickly scan for something that is not quite right about their lives. When they have found something, they feel instant relief. Even if everything is going swimmingly, they believe this is merely the calm before a storm. We can see this process in action when something makes us worry and then another event happens and we forget our first worry and worry about the second instead. This is not worrying to resolve the issue, it is worrying out of habit.
Worrying is never helpful. It is not the same thing as thinking through possible scenarios which can often offer clarity about the risk, and spur us on to take action. David is a professional landlord, mentored by two wealthy men when he was still a teenager. “They explained how they got rich and encouraged me to buy property. People around me urged caution. I decided the worst thing that could happen would be the tenant would stop paying their rent and I’d never find another one. What would I do? Well, I could sell the property I thought. I then realised it was unlikely I’d never find another tenant if that happened. That was when I was 18, so I went ahead and bought my first apartment with a down payment from the money I’d saved from working evenings and weekends. I’m now 40 and own 18 houses; I no longer have to work. All those people who told me I was nuts to take such a risk are still in the rat race.”
If David had got into the worrying spiral, he’d be worrying now about paying his bills.
Let’s take a look at what worry does to us :
• The fight or flight response causes the body’s sympathetic nervous system to release stress hormones such as cortisol. These hormones can increase blood sugar levels and triglycerides (blood fats) that can be used by the body for fuel. Suppression of the immune system soon follows.
• Digestive disorders.
• Using stimulants to relieve the stress of worry such as cigarettes, drugs, alcohol.
• Muscle tension.
• Short-term memory loss.
• Premature coronary artery disease.
• Heart attack.
• Depression and suicidal thoughts.
Imagining worst-case scenarios with the accompanying emotions prepares the brain for these scenarios to act themselves out in real life. It is the worst kind of visualisation, and is playing with fire. Just as dogs can smell fear, our subconscious can attract the exact situations that will allow us to experience the bad emotions we have rehearsed for real. Projecting negative scenarios about the future hastens them, makes them happen. The brain can dip into different networks based on past information and emotions and create a new network which forms an image. Every time we visualise a future outcome the network is strengthened; eventually the brain is structured as if the event has already occurred, and the body receives messages from this circuitry. So thinking about and feeling what a future experience may look like will affect our personal reality. The body is getting the signal before the event has occurred, and it does not know the difference.
Fiona is trying to stop fretting when things go wrong. “When I overslept – through exhaustion actually, helping him to prepare for his exams – and my 13 yr-old missed half an hour of his history exam, I was distraught. Knowing how much damage worry could do to my body, I tried to concentrate on work that day once he’d gone to school, putting out of my mind the guilt I felt and my fears of the anger – justified anger – he would express towards me when he got home from school. I’d let him down. I didn’t try to justify to myself what I’d done, but I did try not to dwell on it. When I got home my partner had told him I’d been weeping in his arms that morning about what a bad mother I was after he’d raced off to school. So the first thing my child did after I apologised was hug me, and then he told me the exam paper was so short he’d had plenty of time, and had done well. Curiously, it brought us closer together. He saw how important his happiness was to me. I was so glad I hadn’t let the worry wreck my day. It would all have been for nothing.”
Worrying is always for nothing. If we had been Richard Branson’s mother, given his dyslexia and poor academic performance, would we have worried ourselves sick about his future? On one of Branson’s last days at school, his headmaster, Robert Drayson, told his mother her son would either end up in prison or become a millionaire. If we had been his mother, which outcome would we have chosen to dwell on? Worrying about what might happen to our children is risky, they pick up on our thoughts because they are made of us and live with us. Placing our children in a risky scenario in our minds is setting the stage.
So what to do when we are tempted to worry? We can try asking ourselves these questions:
a. What’s the worst case scenario? Often it’s quite hard, annoying even, to think this through, because it’s the worrying which is strangely comforting, not thinking about the real consequences.
b. What’s the most likely scenario?
c. What’s the best case scenario?
When thinking about the future we must never choose a bad outcome. Things are never as bad as we thought they were going to be, and worry will not stop bad things from happening. And by the way, whatever actually does happen, human beings can get used to anything.
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