“When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.”
– Winston Churchill
Worry is a defence against reality. More specifically, it's a defence against feelings that arise when we are faced with the unknown and uncertainty that life presents us with. It’s also a form of rumination and commonly a process of wondering what if this, or what if that, happens. For some people worry can be endless and establishes a pattern of pessimistic thinking called catastrophising - basically, thinking the worst. Like Churchill's old man and many others who suffer this tendency, it risks persisting until you find yourself on your deathbed reflecting on all the happiness you have forfeited by worrying.
All the time you are worrying you are not present. That means you are not able to mindfully enjoy or apply yourself to things you are doing and do your best job of them. This might include talking with friends, working, studying or exercising. Furthermore, worry will likely maintain a range of physiological symptoms of anxiety that might include tension, headaches, digestive or stomach problems and cognitive disruption that are your body’s original response to the threatening feelings that uncertainty triggers in you.
In order to help my clients break the habit of worrying, I take a two-pronged approach, as I do with those struggling with other compulsions or addictions. This involves both exploring the feelings that you are avoiding, and discussing and implementing the practical strategies necessary to achieve and maintain abstinence. One of these strategies is Mindfulness, a practice that promotes calmness and improves overall well-being. It does so by helping you become better able to stay with the certainty of the present and, in turn, it strengthens your ability to interrupt the process of tormenting yourself with the uncertainty of the future.
If you are a worrier, your mind is often busy fighting to make the uncertain, certain. This is a battle you and your fantasising mind will lose because, as we all know but sometimes struggle to admit, reality always wins. So, evaluating the likelihood of which of your fantasies is most likely to come true is rarely helpful and I would risk colluding with you in this unhelpful thought process and in avoiding the feelings that reality’s uncertainty brings up for you.
In order to face uncertainty I have to help you change our focus from what you don't know in the future to what you do know in the present, and be able to accept both. As one of my clients put back to me recently, ‘...so, I must leave the unknown alone’. The practice of Mindfulness will help you with this.
Mindfulness is free, and straight-forward. You don't have to be middle class or a hippy to practise it and benefit from it. I say this because, when I mention it in my practice, I sometimes hear such prejudices about it. A state of mindfulness can be achieved through meditation or through everyday activities. Mindful meditation involves sitting comfortably or lying down, usually with your eyes closed or half closed, and focusing on your breathing. If you do this, because you are thinking human being, your mind will wander. When it does you gently guide it back to your breathing.
As long as you are focussed on your breathing - your anchor - there is no other time or place you can be other than in the present, and there is no time or place left for worrying. You can do a mediation with or without a guiding voice, but if you are starting out, a guiding voice can be helpful. To find one, you can search mindful meditations on YouTube, or download a mindfulness app. If you are trying it without a guide, set a timer for 5 minutes to start, and work up to longer meditations when you feel ready.
You can also mindfully carry out everyday activities by using the sensory experience of what you are doing as your anchor. You might do this while you are swimming, or making something, or playing a video game. When you are reading, you could consider the words on your page, your anchor. If your mind wanders, as it often does when we read long texts, you can bring yourself gently - without irritation or self-judgement - back to the words. You may be surprised that if you try you can even immerse yourself in the most mundane of tasks like washing up or brushing your teeth. Perhaps you could try it next time you are doing one of these things and notice that you are not worrying while you do it. (Remember that having TV, radio or music on in the background will divide your attention, so turn any of these things off to fully immerse yourself in what you are doing).
Now, there are times when we have good reason to think about uncertainty and the unknown. To think and/or write in order to prepare the best we can for something happening in the future. This might be an event such as a performance or a speech or a wedding; or it might be that we have to consider a series of outcomes such as we might if we were going for an interview; or we might need to consider a dilemma.
This type of ‘worrying’ is best done mindfully with a pen and paper or using the notes app on your phone, and within a time-frame after which you stop doing it, so you can focus on other things. If you worry a lot in bed when you are trying to sleep, mindful worry time earlier in the evening might help you fall asleep more successfully.
Uncertainty stimulates painful emotions in some people. This may be because it triggers a memory of a previous experience or trauma that once left you with difficult feelings like anger, sadness or guilt. To defend against these feelings when they arise again, and against the physiological anxiety they trigger, your mind turns to worry in an attempt to create certainty.
In order to be happy or, at the very least, content, we have to be able to accept life’s uncertainty and, as my client so beautifully put it: ‘leave the unknown, alone’. If you are struggling with worry you might research and then begin to introduce mindfulness into your life as well as reflect on what uncertainty meant to you as a child or in the past. If you can't get to the bottom of it yourself, you may consider seeing a therapist to help you explore your issue more deeply.