If you are anything like me and probably every single adult I have ever met, you worry. When it’s not about money, it’s about how you look, about work, about your kids, about your parents, and the list goes on.
According to Brené Brown, a lead researcher at the University of Houston, 95% of parents are constantly worrying that some sort of disaster will happen with their kids. They are worrying that something bad is approaching while in reality the kids are deep asleep in the next room.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines worry as “mental distress or agitation resulting from concern usually for something impending or anticipated”. Notice, it comes from something that has not happened yet, therefore it relies on a prediction about the future. Sometimes these predictions are very well founded and have merit. Some steps actually need to be taken to mitigate the risk. In other cases, the predictions are as distant from reality as a kid playing pretend.
All of us are born with this amazing ability called imagination. When we are young, we use our imagination to create play, picture ourselves in castles, battles, the jungle, wherever we want to go to experience fun, excitement, fulfillment.
As we grow older, that power of creation starts moving in a different direction and we start doing something called “catastrophizing”, or imagining the worst possible outcome of an action or event. There is a part of us that believes that if we imagine a dire enough future, we will somehow be prepared and won’t suffer as much. That is a myth. As anyone who has experienced tragedy will confirm, there is no way to prepare for the worst.
When we keep imagining that awful future and living it as if it was a given, what we end up developing is anxiety and fear. And, most importantly, we miss the opportunity to enjoy the present, the only certainty we actually have.
I am not saying that there is no merit in planning for the future. If we have solid evidence to believe that something can go wrong, it would be foolish not to prepare for that. And that’s usually not the case. Most of the time, when people worry, it’s based on a fantastic future that has a very small probability of happening.
Throughout my career as a coach I have had various clients come to a session worried because of some imminent change that was about to take place in their lives. A common example is when an employee is assigned a new manager at work to replace someone they trust and had built a relationship with. The story they are often telling themselves is that the new manager will be bad, they will not be able to develop a strong bond and their jobs and opportunities will be negatively impacted. The assumption is that new manager = bad manager. Result: anxiety goes up.
Once my clients realize that this is an imagined story which may or may not happen, they are able to relax, be in the present and work to build the relationships they want with their new managers, as opposed to suffer based on the worst possible imagined future.
Spiritual teachers Ron and Mary Hulnick pose an insightful question: “Why not win in your own fantasies?”. Our worries often derive from nothing more than speculations about the worst possible scenario, a catastrophe. We imagine a future we don’t want and start living as if it were true. We experience emotions and behave based on nothing more than a negative future fantasy.
So how do we change that cycle and stop catastrophizing? Here are four steps that I have found very effective:
Acknowledge that everything is ok: No matter what is happening in your life or what you worry could happen, if you stop at this very moment, instant, second and reflect, most likely things are fine. In this very moment, you are here, alive, experiencing whatever is available through your senses.
Reflect: Take a moment to reflect on how realistic the worry is. If it’s something that really needs to be addressed (ex: you will miss a deadline, someone you care about is sick), move into “concern” mode. Worry paralyzes, concern leads to action. Someone worried about money is not in action, is just stressed about it. Alternatively, someone concerned takes steps to change the situation. One looks for a job, asks the bank for a loan, cuts expenses. Worrying gets you in victim mode. Moving into concern, puts you in the driver seat to take action and change the situation.
Practice gratitude: If you decide the worry is not much more than a fantasy, a scenario that could happen with the same probability as multiple other scenarios, replace worry with gratitude: instead of fantasizing about what horrible things the future can bring, focus on what you can be grateful for right now.
Create your future: Start picturing the future you WANT as opposed to the future you FEAR. You might be surprised with the results.
I am not naive and know that this is easier said than done. Sometimes a part of us knows that there is no point in worrying, and we worry anyway. The only path I know to change this behavior is through practice: going through steps 1 to 4 above over and over until they become second nature.
I will leave you with this inspiring video which is a great reminder of how privileged we are to be right here, right now. Let's enjoy the journey and create our most amazing futures.
Be well, be now.