For much of my life I was a champion worrier. When I was about 4 or 5 years old my teacher gave me the Mister Men book, Mr Worry, so clearly the writing was on the wall for me from an early age. It was a nice gesture from my teacher, but it would take more repetitions of the basic lesson in this story about needless and excess worry for the message to finally sink in. (I just watched an animated version on YouTube and it actually doesn’t end all that well, which is worrying.)
Worry can be consider a mental way of bracing ourselves for the emotional shock that would accompany what we perceive to be a calamitous event, and it is thought that worriers are particularly sensitive to such spikes in emotion. To see how this works, let’s represent the event by the bursting of a balloon, and the worrier by a relative of mine who is particularly sensitive to loud noises. I’ve seen him visibly tense up at the prospect of a balloon bursting, and he cannot relax while this is a possibility.
Bracing ourselves in this way is a natural response to the potential for physical shock, and would likely protect us from more serious injury should that shock eventuate. Worry is often an attempt to anticipate negative events, and generate solutions to deal with those events. So in this way it can be thought of as mentally preparing ourselves—bracing ourselves—for the consequences.
This all sounds great, but if we are sensitive to the possibility of something, anything, going wrong, then we must work extra hard to prevent this. Hence we must keep worrying, constantly bracing ourselves for the moment we have to deal with the next mishap, whatever that may be. Many things in life can go wrong, and these potential negative events—anything from a minor mishap to a great disaster—are like a room full of balloons. There is always uncertainty over when one of these balloons will burst, so the worrier spends their days bracing themselves for this.
The Cost of Worrying
The cost of all this worrying is experienced physically with symptoms of tension and stress, much like you would expect when bracing for a physical shock. And being on edge all the time makes the worrier easy to irritate, like a mouse trap ready to snap. And it’s exhausting being constantly on guard: they say there’s no rest for the wicked, but also none for the worrywart. And how can anyone concentrate when they constantly have things on their mind? And with all that thinking, there’s very little time for action: not much is getting done, which when you think about it, is a bit worrying. Even writing about worry is tiring and repetitive.
So what can we do? It’s a good start to recognise what’s happening: that by always preparing ourselves for occasional moments of acute emotional pain, we are guaranteeing ourselves the chronic emotional pain of stress and anxiety. We can ask ourselves whether this is really a worthwhile trade off. And if we decide it is not, then we must first accept that from time to time we won’t be fully prepared for a negative turn of events; but then we can travel through life a lot lighter*. And if this is unconvincing, there are a variety of quite practical ways to reduce our worry. But this post has been long enough, so they’ll have to wait for another day. Don’t worry, I’ll get to it.
(*In another post I make a similar point using a different analogy.)