3 Jun 2016

The Addictive Habit of Worrying.


I used to worry a lot. I would exhaust most of my mental charge imagining what might go wrong in the meeting, how a client would respond to my advice or whether I would miss something when litigating a claim. When I wasn’t worrying about the things that hadn’t yet happened, I would fret about what had. I’d replay conversations and contributions and lambast myself silently for what I did or didn’t say.

We lost our dog, Buddy, yesterday. I mean ‘lost’ in the sense that we didn’t know where he was. We’d been walking in the woods, deep in conversation and took a direction that to Buddy, would have been unexpected (I suspect that as he’s a dog, he has no ‘expectations’ as we humans do – but you know what I mean). When we turned to check that he was following us, he wasn’t. We called and whistled for a few minutes, but he didn’t appear. My husband and I agreed that he would head home and I would take our normal path through the woods – the one that Buddy was ‘used to’.

As I was walking through the dappled shade of the trees, calling and whistling for our precious little dog, I noticed that I was starting to worry. I could feel anxiety forming a knot in my stomach. I followed the feeling back to my thinking; ‘what if he’s on the road?’ (vivid picture of a car racing along the road towards him), ‘what if we never find him?’ (cute image of Buddy in my mind), ‘someone might have stolen him!’ (imagine a man running off in a comedy burglar outfit with Buddy under his arm). My anxiety levels were rising in response to the ‘worry thoughts’ and the crystal clear images that accompanied them.

It then struck me that it had been a very long time since such useless mental reflexes had been my constant companions. I’d long since broken the habit of worrying as an automatic response to every challenging situation. I knew the pattern that these ‘worry thoughts’ would take – they would escalate slowly and steadily until I had catastrophised a hideous (and highly improbable) outcome.

As I walked, and called, and whistled, I took a deep breath and focussed on what would most likely be happening right now; either Buddy was sniffing around the woods and I would shortly find him or he would have found his own way home. After all, we don’t live near busy roads, and there aren’t many dog-stealing maniacs around. I reasoned that I was, at that moment, doing all that I practically could in the situation.

I love our little dog – and I used to think that my anxiety levels were a significant and appropriate demonstration of just how much I cared. But I now appreciate that that way of thinking is a justification for perpetuating an unhealthy habit. When my mind is settled and rational, I can be present and more open to my innate wisdom. I’m much more likely to have an insight about what I can do to change what’s happening right now. In this situation, it was remaining present and watchful.

When I came out of the woods and walked the mile or so to our house, I saw my husband with Buddy. As soon as he saw me, he ran towards me (the dog – not my husband!) and I enjoyed that moment fully and with a huge grin on my face. I was calm and present, instead of being wrung out with imagined terrors.

What’s coming up in your life today or tomorrow or next week that you’re fretting about? What’s playing on your mind from the past that you cannot now change? Please recognise that it’s just your thinking that’s making you feel the anxiety. Worrying is a habit just like any other: you can change or drop your thinking at any moment – and that’s an especially good idea if it’s not serving you. It will take willpower and perseverance to keep catching your thinking and allowing it to drop, or selecting a way of thinking about the situation that is more productive. When your mind is settled, you are likely to be more present and able to access your innate wisdom. Isn’t that a healthy habit that you can start to ritualise today?