Unlike many things in the positive psychology realm, worry is quite easy to define. Worry is a chain of negative thoughts about the same or different topics that can have negative consequences for you in the future if a solution is not reached. Worrying is future thinking worst-case scenario planning and it leads to catastrophic levels of anxiety.
It's the "what if" thoughts that suck us into worry and anxiety. We're allowing our imagination to become unleashed and creating multiple bad scenarios of what might happen. When my children were little the only rule we regularly followed in our home was no "what if" questions.
"What if" questions are fine if you are using them to create a plan. For example, if you think "what if my car breaks down and I don't have anybody to call" then you make the plan of buying roadside assistance your what if was useful. It leads you to productive problem-solving.
When worry isn't helpful is when it escalates to crisis mongering, a term psychologists have coined to describe worrying that keeps spiraling out of control without stopping. It the "what if I am all alone in my car breaks down and nobody comes and it's cold and there's a snowstorm and my phone dies" sort of thinking that is not at all helpful in resolving potential future problems or obstacles.
Worry comes from fear. Psychologist Susan Jeffers teaches 5 truths about fear.
1) fear accompanies growth
2) action is the way out of fear
3) every time you move past fear you get greater self-confidence
4) you are not the only one who gets scared
5) pushing through fear is less frightening over the long run than the feeling of helplessness that accompanies inaction
Worrying about the future doesn't help you to be a better problem solver, in fact, it induces that fight or flight stress state and impairs your rational thinking.
There's always an exception to the rule and this exception is when you are in an immediate life-threatening short-term situation. If I'm going to step out onto a busy street when worry kicks in and says maybe I shouldn't do that without looking both ways, it is useful.
According to Lynn Lyons; child anxiety expert, one big problem that happens when children don't learn how to deal with their worry is it predicts anxiety and depression later in life. In general children today seem to have the ability to cope with more stress than any previous generation. The fact they are coping so well leads parents and educators to think that a child is doing fine when, in fact, they are on the edge of overwhelm. What can adults do to help?
- stop the use of words that catastrophize like always, never, nobody, and everybody
- allow them to take a movement breaks-the flood of stress chemicals that your brain sends out when your body is worried make it really hard to think to act well and to make good decisions so encourage a little shake it off moment helps
- model appropriate stress responses by saying "I'm feeling stressed- let's take a break" or "this is hard, let's take a couple of deep breaths before we continue"
- take a mindful moment- mindfulness and meditation directly counteract all the physical stress responses
What about at work there are some things that do deserve a little worry?
- designate a time- a limited duration where you actually give yourself permission to worry but when it's over it's over you need to stop
- hire a lawyer (not literally) but imagine you were presenting your worry case to a judge. Play the role of the opposition and see what the other side would say. Allow yourself to play devil's advocate to your own worry system and maybe, in the end, it won't seem like you've got so much to worry about
- if you can't worry less, worry more- waaay more. Make your worst-case scenario absolutely ridiculous. Allow that snowball of worries to keep going until it's so big that it's obvious it's not real- it's all in your head
I come from a long line of worriers. If worrying was a sport my family would have some gold medals! The thing is, worriers sometimes feel like their worry on your behalf is useful (it isn't). They also think that a caring person should worry about others (they shouldn't). Your worry is zapping your joy and limiting your ability to engage in life. Every moment you are worried about the future you are missing whatever is happening in the present. I often equate worrying to paying the interest before you have the loan. Decide it's time to stop worrying. you'll thank yourself!
If I had my life to live over, I would perhaps have more actual troubles but I'd have fewer imaginary ones. ~Don Herold