I’ve always been a worrier. For as long as I remember I’ve worried about what people thought of me, or whether I was liked. I’ve worried about underperforming, and not being good enough. Despite never being misplaced by my parents in the fruit and veg section of the local grocery store, I have a visceral fear of being abandoned. My children are under strict instructions not to do so in my dotage.
I’m terrible in planes, certain that we might not make it to the other side. I don’t like boats that catch the wind and lean over too far, or motorbikes that go too fast. The possibilities for disaster seem overwhelming. I hate, hate, roller coaster rides, which I am sure will choose that particular day to become unhinged and throw me to the ground. I’m not sure I’ve always been afraid of car trips, but a boyfriend who had a penchant for driving into things at high speed ensured that I’m a nightmare of a passenger, constantly flinching at far off possible dangers that might smash us to pieces. It makes the driver somewhat tense.
I worry about health and parenting children with anaphylaxis has not helped my disposition. As a child with growing pains leading to aching limbs, I was convinced I had leukemia. Headaches as a teenager portended brain tumours. Ageing, which is accompanied with all manner of aches and pains is a worrier’s nightmare.
On the whole, I’ve never let worry stop me from doing things. I fly because I like seeing new places. I’ve been parasailing, skiing, snorkeling and, with an instructor to hold my hand, diving. I ride a road bike, and have taken a mountain bike down the world’s most dangerous road in Bolivia. (This activity still gives me nightmares). I stand up for my views, talk to strangers and write things that can attract a certain amount of criticism.
But worry plays loudly in my head, in the lead up to and during the event itself. It’s hard to relax and enjoy things, if you are in a constant state of alert.
Traditionally, I dealt with worry by maintaining a worry-list. I made the rather astute observation that the things I worried about never came to pass, and as such, it seemed important to add as many concerns to the worry list as possible. It became a running joke in my house. I’d express a concern about an upcoming event, and my husband, who seems to have no fear about anything, would tell me to add it to the list. I have no wish to be superstitious, and I am deeply scathing of magical thinking, but both were on mad display in this mental activity.
It was sitting in a first-year psychology class, in my forties, that I realised that worrying so much wasn’t sensible, as I’d always felt, but possibly pathological.
It was when the lecturer mentioned a thing called generalised anxiety disorder, specifically noting that people who suffer from this might keep worry lists as a form of control, that my ears pricked up. She read off a few more markers that felt all too familiar, including a tendency toward perfectionism. “Oh, that’s me,” I thought (not without a sense of shame, I’ll add).
I’m not a fan of labels. I think you can lean into them too far and take ownership of them as part of your immutable identity. There is a danger, I think, in becoming too attached to a label. But there is no doubt that to solve a problem you need to recognise it in the first place.
Worrying itself is not an unreasonable response to many of life’s conundrums. It’s normal to be scared of flying. Hurtling through the sky at high speed in a thin metal tube with heaps of other human primates is not something evolution has prepared our brains for. But it’s not normal to run through every remotely possible opportunity for disaster for weeks beforehand because you think it will keep you safe, nor is it fabulous to sit on a plane so tensely wound up you might have a heart attack in the event of a bit of jolting about in bad weather. And when fear stops you from doing things you want to do, then it’s not the useful kind.
I don’t want to be such a worrier. It’s unnecessarily exhausting, and it sucks the joy from things. Feeling scared all the time is a waste of this one precious, brief life we have in which to experience wonder. Keeping a worry list, the way I did anyway, was not helping, I realised. It just reinforced the habit of worrying by focusing attention in the wrong places. It was, in effect, making it worse.
I’m conscious that I probably have an amygdala that is more sensitive to fear sensations. But the worry list was entrenching a pattern of association and interpretation in my cortex that was not accurate nor helpful. Looking back now, I can see it was taking raw sensation and telling me a story that kept me in a place of anxiety.
I engaged with the practice and teachings of meditation to find a place of calm and control.
In doing so I became aware that there is a constant train of what-if thoughts running unchecked in my head. These thoughts bubble up repeatedly and are characterised by a negativity bias and a tendency to catastrophise. The thoughts themselves are not the issue, I realise. Like all thoughts, they spontaneously pop into my head as the result of electro-chemical activity in my brain. Identifying with them and being carried away by them, however, is a problem that requires a solution. With time and practice it dawns on me that I have the capacity to merely observe the train of thought going past, rather than jumping on board and settling in for the ride with a gin and tonic.
Just because I have the capacity to decouple my mind from the caboose of the worry-train, doesn’t mean I succeed. But this recognition is the starting point to unpicking anxiety from my automated response, and it gives me an opportunity to change my inner dialogue.
When I find myself in anxiety-ville, I engage my pre-fontal cortex to serve up logical arguments against the concerns my brain has manufactured in the form of thoughts. I remind myself that life is not controllable. That “shit happens”, but mostly it doesn’t. And that no amount of preparing for it will change the experience should it do so. In this, I practice acceptance. I remind myself, aloud and sometimes sternly, that worrying about something, even something that does eventuate, means you have to experience it (at least) twice. When I find myself fearful, I actively talk my worrying mind through the task of separating out what is happening from what might happen in the future. When I catch myself catastrophising, I forcefully bring my mind back to the ground, to my small world and small circle of influence. When none of this works, I catch my breath, and let it take me to the shores of the ocean, and I breathe those waves in and out, slowly and on repeat. All of this takes effort. It requires a determined doing, rather than just being.
“It takes curiosity to learn. It takes courage to unlearn.”Adam Grant
It takes huge courage for me to give up the habit of worry because the superstitious response that underpins my need to worry is deeply ingrained in my neural network. I hear it echoing in the background even as a type this. What if you are wrong? What if worrying is what keeps you safe? What if, what if, what if…
Neither is it an easy task to change a habit of a lifetime. I often fail, but the joy of mindfulness is that it is a practice not a test, and I am making progress. Last week I swam a 1km race in the ocean without spending the whole time concerned about sharks or rogue waves or not being able to finish.
I’m actively contemplating learning to dive. Because I know that fear is the only thing holding me back from doing it and I think, if I could ratchet down the pulse rate, I would enjoy being under the sea.
Still, you won’t find me stepping out of a perfectly good plane to skydive, and I’m not going to go on a stupid theme park ride that turns me upside down. Accepting oneself is part of this journey too.
But I’ve let go of clasping so tightly to the hand-hold in the car when my husband or learner daughter is driving, and I’ve stopped assuming every plane trip will end in disaster just because I happen to be on it. I choose to step off the what-if train again and again, and eventually, hopefully, it will no longer call at my stop.
And onwards we go.
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