On Worrying

It occurred to me the other day how unpleasant I can make life for myself when I’m in a fit of worrying. I don’t like worrying, I don’t even really approve of it, as it is such a waste of mental and emotional energy. But nevertheless worry can sneak up on me, and I will catch myself in the act of having a furious fret about something, as if I had suddenly tuned in to a different mental wavelength where unbeknownst to me, anxiety had pirated the airwaves. And worry is such an amplifier; I’ve rarely ever known it to shrink a problem or soothe me. But we never do things unless there is some advantage to them. Worry must have its upside, its pressing reasons for nagging at us. Worry makes obstacles and problems big so that we can’t sink into indifference about them. It’s an early warning system set on a hair trigger that’s hard to turn off. Worry really wants us to take action, and yet by filling our minds and draining our energies, it also keeps us passively chained to the spot. It’s a paradox.

So what do I know about worry? Well, I know it’s a crazy, already-failed attempt to control the future. Worry is one way of imagining who we might be if we were forced to lose precious or important things. It’s a way to imagine what we might look like if disaster struck, as well as a subversive form of magical thinking: If I worry enough, it may never happen. Sometimes I think worry is a form of ongoing, and unkind, self-policing. If I worry sufficiently about something to give myself a very unpleasant experience, I certainly won’t put myself in that position again. I’ll avoid it in future. Once we’ve got the lizard brain involved in a process of mental reckoning, it’s rather like handing a freshly sharpened sword to Attila the Hun. The lizard brain is the ancient realm of fight or flight, and because its business is survival, its method is to bully you relentlessly until you give in and do what it wants. The lizard brain feels no shame; if it’s wrong nine times out of ten, and the rustle in the bushes turns out to be a bird not a tiger, it has no compunction about sounding the alarm on the tenth occasion. That droning quality of worry, its armour-plating against reason and reality, its drilling insistence in one’s head, all this bears the hallmark of the lizard brain that gains in power what it lacks in sophistication.

And yet, I can’t help but feel that essentially, worry is the province of the risk-averse. Or at least, we worry about things that we can’t bear to risk, for whatever reason that may be. Once we’ve risked something and found it to be elastic, or regenerative, or more reliable than we thought, then we stop worrying about it. For instance, the first time that Mister Litlove was made redundant, I worried a lot about money. But the second time I didn’t worry at all. We’d survived before, and without too much trouble; we knew that we could live on quite a small amount of money, if we were careful, and so there was no longer, in my mind, anything to worry about. People who were tearaways or rebels in teenage years don’t tend to be big worriers in later life. They’ve already experimented with throwing things away, like love and security and safety, and made it through all right. It was those of us who did what we were told, and never caused our parents worry who end up, ironically, the worriers in middle age.

A different order of problem arrives, though, if we’ve risked something and lost it. Fear of reliving a past trauma or catastrophe accounts for a great deal of the uncontrollable worrying we put ourselves through, and the kind of anxiety that is about something perfectly understandable, but blown out of all proportion. In all honesty there’s only one thing I really worry about (okay, inevitably I worry about my son, so, two things) and that’s my health. I can’t quite believe what a hypochondriac I’ve turned into. But after years and years of chronic fatigue, I can’t quite bear for there to be anything more wrong with me. I know that most people never recover from chronic fatigue, so I’ve done pretty well. But my health now feels precarious; my experience is of my body letting me down, not pulling me through. I feel as if I’ve earned myself years of perfect health, but of course that’s not a deal I can broker. Plus, if I’d known back in 1997 that all those strange illnesses I was suffering from, those odd health issues I was encountering, were about to cause me a decade of ill health, I’d have done something much sooner. I just figured I’d be okay in the end. The wisdom of hindsight is as usual a dreadful burden to bear. The least little thing wrong with me now and I’m all on edge: what will this turn into? Should I do something about it?

If there’s one image that sums up worry for me, it’s that line from the bible, ‘a cloud no bigger than a man’s fist’. It’s the first cloud in the sky before the great flood that puts Noah onto the ark. That’s what my worrying looks like: I’ve spotted a cloud, should I now prepare for the catastrophe? Whilst a flood is by no means the certain outcome of a small cloud, it’s rarely possible to rule it out altogether before the rain starts to fall. Perhaps what it boils down to in the end is the acknowledgement that life can turn on a dime, and some people have a better relationship to that proposition than others. Me, I’m not great with the random unpredictability of existence. But there are two thoughts I try to hang onto, like rubber rings. The first is that whilst worry can make us feel as vulnerable and resourceless as children, as an adult, I am not particularly either of those (or at least not all the time). And the second is that good things often come out of bad events. We are unfortunate indeed if a catastrophe has nothing to offer us in the way of experience, knowledge and unexpected support. Even if it was a long and rocky road, chronic fatigue changed many things in my life for the better, and not least, it showed me how sensible it is to cut oneself a break from time to time. It’s out of that kindness to myself that I want to nip at least some of those pesky worries in the bud.


25 thoughts on “On Worrying

  1. “It was those of us who did what we were told, and never caused our parents worry who end up, ironically, the worriers in middle age.”

    This post has described me to a “t,” Litlove. Being risk-averse is the biggest problem, and having an overactive imagination that tends to the dark side is the other. I’m in a worrisome phase myself right now, and although I know it isn’t productive or good for me, I can’t seem to pull myself out of it.

    Having had a bad experience or two, I am gun shy of doing certain things. But I have had so many good experiences, and they far outweigh the bad, that one would think I could look back upon those and gain confidence. Also, as you say, those bad experiences have in general turned out all right in the end, even though the process of getting there was rocky.

    Ah well, what’s to be done with us? At least I’m glad to know I’m in good company 🙂

    • Becca – I am happy to keep you company – and I feel exactly the same. If I could deal with worry cognitively, I could. But sometimes it just taps into something powerful and unreasonable. Acting, changing something, stopping, altering the direction I’m headed in; usually I have to do something definitive to break its hold. Like you I’ve really had far more good experiences than bad, so it’s not sensible to let the bad dominate. I think I read somewhere that risk takers also have terrible short term memories. What happens to them, they forget really quickly. It’s those of us with elephantine memories who suffer!

  2. For me worrying is almost like an acquired taste. It is an acquired habit one we have learned but can unlearn – to a certain extent – as well, keep in check. I believe it is like health in general. Some are born more fragile than others and they can learn to live with it. The tricky thing is that everything is linked. One reaction, physical or psychologica,l triggers another reaction. On the other hand there is beauty in this as well.
    I need to ground myself. Eat and sleep regularly. I loose weight too easily and when I get too skinny I get fragile and start to fidget and then worry. It’s banal but that’s how it is.
    I was very rebellious in my youth, btw. Phases in which I worry come and go. I acquired it rather later, in my mid-twenties – because I fell very ill – a bit like you , for over a decade. It shattered my belief in my invulnerability quite a bit. But slowly slowly I do belive in it again and worry far less. Or do not get into the late-in-the-morning- I’m-lying-awake-and-am-the-only-one-in-the-world-and-will-always-be-the-only-one- and-will-loose-my-job-my-money-my-health-and-old-age-lurks-just-around-the-corner spiral …

    • Caroline – I found your comments really fascinating. Learning to live with things probably is the key (I still tend to fight against them), and I also find that a lot of attention to the usual things like food and sleep can help a great deal. But I really relate to your experience of falling ill, obviously. I was nowhere near as vulnerable before that – unsurprisingly, of course.

    • Mdbrady – I didn’t know you were also a chronic fatigue sufferer! My heart goes out to you. Come and join us here – several cfs-ers read and comment here. It’s a pig of an illness, and solidarity helps.

  3. I’m a terrible worrier. I know it’s counterproductive but I do it anyway. I have this thing where if I imagine the bad thing (or if I imagine a good thing), it won’t happen. I don’t know how to fix it, even though I know my lizard brain is acting a fool. Blech. You have described it all perfectly!

    • Jenny – oh that pesky animistic thinking! I spent years of my childhood imagining all the bad things I possibly could in the belief it would prevent them from happening the next day. Alas, this strategy succeeded too well. Although in all fairness, I had a very vivid imagination, and life was probably not as dramatic as I feared!

  4. Oh, can I relate to this post–especially the part about turning into a hypochondriac after having a serious health issue. As you know, I also have a chronic illness, and my experience totally aligns with yours in that I now worry about the least little thing about myself in regard to my health. It is hard for me to control my worrying about my health, and I find that what has helped me so much is vigorous exercise. When I can throw myself into intense cardiovascular exercise on a regular basis, for whatever reason, my health worries diminish–mind you they don’t disappear because they will always be there (and I believe I will most likely be managing this anxiety about my healthfor the rest of my life). I guess it doesn’t help that I am also an anxious person in general. But for me, I have learned to accept this about myself. It is not easy to deal with having anxiety about my health, but I know it is part of who I am–and there is a reason behing my health worries–and I am learning to ease up on myself.

    • Ali – bless you for this lovely comment. And I was fascinated by what you had to say about cardiovascular exercise. I can believe it helps, a) because it really works adrenaline out of the system and b) because feeling one’s body as strong and powerful must be the best antidote to health worries. Cardiovascular exercise is the hardest one for cfs-ers to master in recovery, but I’ve just got hold of a dance dvd (the one star reviews complained they barely broke into a sweat and I thought – that’s the one for me!) and will hope to start doing some of it, gently! – soon.

  5. I hope you are able to be kind to yourself and learn to nip the worries in the bud. While I was one of those children who never caused her parents to worry (mostly), I myself and not a worrier. That’s not to say I never worry, I do, but not often and not to the point that it becomes overwhelming. My sister is a huge worrier and I have a couple coworkers who are worriers and I’m always tell them why they don’t need to worry and they are always explaining to me why they are worried. It’s often like we are talking two different languages and neither can understand the other. So thanks for you post, it gives me a little insight.

    • Stefanie – oh you are blessed, my friend, not to be a worrier. I so wish I wasn’t! But I do think it’s essentially a hardwiring thing, because those who worry can’t be stopped and those who don’t worry can’t be persuaded to. Believe me, I’ve seen this over and again with the students! 🙂

  6. I knew I should have been a rebel as a teenager, but I was a good girl that never caused my parent’s a moment worry. And now I pay! 🙂 I think you already know I am an inveterate worrier–once burned twice shy and all that. I’m so afraid of taking risks now that I think I’m closing myself off from the world. But I do now have a little inner mantra as you have mentioned it to me and on your posts and that is to give yourself (well, myself a break). Some habits are ingrained and hard to stop. As always very wise words and a thoughtful post!

    • Danielle – it really IS hard to stop worrying. I have tried every which way I know, and have managed to get the worry down to only a few categories (travel, health, my son, very occasionally imminent world disasters), but they are the persistent ones. I sort of feel that we have to grant permission to ourselves to say no sometimes, to things we just don’t want to do, or just don’t feel like. I often find that a lot of my worry centres on things I actually don’t want to do but don’t know how to get out of! I can’t seem to plow on regardless these days….. Still, I do so appreciate the solidarity of my blog friends – that helps enormously.

  7. Dear LL, I nodded and chuckled and sat with my chin in my hand, all three throughout reading this and rereading some of it (especially about handing the sword to the lizard brain. Have I done that? If so, I’m taking it back, wresting it from its coldblooded little grip).
    This is a wonderful piece, the examination of it, the truth of it, the universality of it, this worry thing. I didn’t know (remember) that line from the Bible – “the cloud no bigger than a man’s fist.” Seems to put a number of things in perspective somehow as well.
    I’m glad you’ve got your ducks in a row on this and just as glad you share it. You have a way of opening doors with your writing and thoughfulness.

    Happy New Year to all the Litloves!

    • Oh bless you, dear Oh! And a very happy, worry-free 2012 to you and yours! I love that phrase about getting ‘ducks in a row’ – how cute is that? I must work it into everyday speech immediately. As ever you always cheer me with your comments.

  8. You’ve described worrying to a T! I rebelled, but I was essentially a good kid, no drugs, no weird piercings–my parents just never acknowledged it. So I worry about things, and then I worry about their opposites. My only antidote is a spiritual connection.

    • Lilian – oh yes, I worry one way and then the other. If I catch myself doing it, I can laugh at it, though! I am aiming for spiritual connection as an antidote (I think that is a fine one), although just at present I seem to do better with sorting things out very practically, and trying to make circumstances as advantageous as I can. That depends on the external world, though, which is not reliable!

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