The best advice I ever received about worry, wasn’t from a psychotherapist, it wasn’t even during my study of psychology or working in my private practice. It was the moment my daughter was born. My doctor placed her on my chest, looked me and my partner right in the eyes and said, “Mom, it’s your job to worry. Dad, it’s your job to deal with it.”
Big moment all around and I’m surprised alongside the drama of childbirth I remember that advice so clearly. Perhaps it’s because I grew up being consumed by worry, mostly because no one had ever given me permission to have it. Worry, especially for kids is often met with, “don’t worry, everything will be okay.” And while that is usually true, disallowing ourselves the act of worry simply doesn’t work and it certainly doesn’t get rid of it. My doctor’s point simply was that parents worry. Sometimes a lot. Step into the role, trade off, don’t let worry consume you, but know you’ll do it more often than not. Worry comes along with parenthood. Perhaps worry, comes along with living in general.
When discussing worry, it is important to distinguish worry from other common stress states like anxiety. Simply put, worry is cognitive, fact based, and temporary. Worry rests in cognition and is usually constrained to our thoughts alone. It is rooted in something that is reality based. Like worrying we will be late for work, or forget our presentation during an important work meeting. Worry is also fleeting and will go away once the event is over, and/or we take steps to ensure fewer possible missteps or unexpected occurrences. Leaving extra time to get to the airport before travel, double checking your laptop and saving your presentation for the next day before heading to bed. Making decisions to keep your morning more predictable on a big day. Often making plans and taking actionable steps will soothe our worries. Sometimes worry can often turn to rumination, where we might run through similar thoughts over and over again, but most significantly worry is free from physical symptoms.
On the other hand Anxiety, along with experiencing racing thoughts and strong emotions, will also include psychical symptoms like a racing heart, upset stomach, and a tight chest. Sometimes these symptoms will increase in severity until they interrupt our daily function. When this is the case, we need to seek out help to manage both the cognitive and physical symptoms. That’s of course where therapy and medication can help.
But when it comes to worry, worry actually serves us more than it hurts us. Worry is likely to cause us to take action, be proactive, and prepared. All good qualities. In order to harness the goodness of worry, it is important to first and foremost, give yourself permission to be worried, but do not let it take over. Allow yourself a set amount of time to be in a worried state. Acknowledge your worries, shake hands with them, think about them for maybe 15 or 20 minutes and then move on. Start to take action. Have a plan and be prepared. Make a list of action steps and get started on them. Tackle them one by one. And finally write that shit down. Really. Writing down worries helps to stop them spread and works on freeing up all that valuable headspace for stuff that is way more fun and rewarding. The most important thing about worry is to not convince yourself you are not going to have it. Worry is part of the human condition. It’s healthy and can actually be a good thing. So maybe the next time someone tells you they are worried about something, our first response should be, “good, me too.”
For more on WORRY listen to JOY IS NOW Episode 27 with J'Amy Tarr