When Worry Takes Hold – Part 1

I’m starting this article on the evening of Labour Day and I notice that I have a funny feeling in my stomach.  I check in with myself and realize that I have the “back to school jitters,” which is actually somewhat bizarre because I’m not going back to school.  I reason that maybe this worry is a cousin of one of the classic worries that I held onto for years after I had finished university: panic that I had assignments due or had forgotten to complete them.

You can probably tell by now that I’m no stranger to worry and if you had the idea that counsellors were so evolved that they never worry, I’m sorry to dash that ideal.  I’m remarkably human.  But in a funny way, my experience with the topic is what helps me to help myself and hopefully help others too. I didn’t just read about it in a book.  I’ve lived it.

Through this experience, that has run through most of my life, I’ve come up with a few observations about worry which I have found to be true for myself.  You may disagree.

Worry Is An Attempt to Transform Emotional Chaos

We feel anxious and we want this feeling to end because it’s highly unpleasant.  We worry and it makes us feel like we’re doing something productive. As long as we apply effort, something good will happen, right?

Worry Gives Us the Illusion of Control

Now that we’ve ‘done something’ by worrying about the situation we may start to believe that we’re now on top of things.  We might even incorporate a little planning in our worry. A potential upside is that our anxiety may decrease a little or we might take a step in the right direction.  Oftentimes, however, the worry becomes circular and repetitive and the idea that we’re in control of anything comes crashing down.

Worry Is Related to a Fear of the Unknown

We may try to predict what is going to happen in the future because the alternative is not knowing, which can be far scarier. It’s human nature to crave stability, predictability, security…and dealing with uncertainty can be terrifying. Unfortunately, worry does not take this fear away.

We Predict and Worry that the Worst Will Happen

We commonly catastrophize about future scenarios even if we have no evidence that things will be as bad as we fear. Sometimes this is done as a form of self protection so that when the reality occurs, it will not seem as bad as what we had anticipated. I don’t, however, recommend working yourself into a frenzy so that you can better handle reality. I’ve also noticed, more often than not, that the mental anticipation is worse than the actual situation.

We Worry That When the Worst Happens, We Won’t be Able to Handle It

I’ve had plenty of people over the years tell me something to the effect that if the worst happens, they’ll end up in the fetal position on the floor, emotionally broken and waiting for men with white coats to take them away. I’ve never seen this happen and people are usually surprised when I say that I’ve heard this worry before, or a variation thereof.

Worry Can Become a Habit or Evolve into a Compulsion

When worry is a habit, we may think something is wrong when we haven’t been worrying for a while because we’re so used to doing it.  We may then try to think of something to worry about so we feel ‘normal’ again. For some (not all) individuals, worry can evolve into rumination, as is often seen with depression or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as obsessional thinking, as is associated with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Worry May Have No Logical Basis

There may be absolutely no evidence that worried-about circumstances will materialize and the worry may be a form of magical thinking.

Worry May be Related to an Unresolved Past Incident or Trauma

If it has been some time since the trauma, and the worry does not seem to be dissipating, counselling or therapy may be indicated.

Worry May be a Sign that Circumstances Need Attention

Procrastination, for example, tends to heighten worry, the longer issues or circumstances go unaddressed.

Worry Can be a Sign of Longing to Have a Deeper Need Met

Worry can be the surface emotion/behaviour that rattles around in our minds while underneath, we may seek comfort, love, companionship, support, etc.

Worry Can Be a Source of Inspiration and Introspection

While I’m no songwriter, I imagine that some great songs have been inspired by worry. Worry seems to have the potential to be a gateway to creativity and self-understanding, if it is not allowed to take over.

Worry Can be a Call to Action

One of my favourite definitions of anxiety is “excess energy,” once relayed to me by a fellow social worker. I include worry as a variation of anxiety.  One of the things I like about this definition is that excess energy, in it’s anxious form, can be redirected productively when appropriate targets are chosen, exercise being one example. It’s also usually the motivator for me cleaning my home.

We Worry that Our Worry is a Problem

Now we have a double jeopardy scenario: we add a layer of self criticism to our existing worries which magnifies our distress.

Next Steps

As it seems like I had so much to say just about the topic of worry, in next month’s edition of The Listening Ear, I will be talking about strategies for taming worry.  If anyone wants to add to this topic, feel free to email me with your ideas.

I look forward to connecting with you next month!