When Worrying Makes Sense And When It Doesn’t

Most of the clients who come to see me are dealing with worry (or, in clinical terms, anxiety) in one sense or another: Here are some of the questions that I hear most frequently, all of which stem from worry:

  • “What if I make the wrong decision?”
  • “Is what I’m feeling ‘normal’?”
  • “What career would be right for me?”
  • “What will my family think?”
  • “Am I sufficiently prepared?”
  • “Will I ever meet the right person for me?”
  • “Suppose the situation doesn’t work out?”
  • “I’m nervous about this upcoming job interview (or date or meeting or performance or…)”
  • “I wonder if I’ll be able to handle the stress (or the travel or the demands or the responsibilities)”

The first thing I ask you to keep in mind about worry is this:

Worry is a process undertaken by our minds to retrieve undesirable events from the past or the future and recreate them in the present.

Please re-read the sentence above – it is absolutely fundamental to an enlightened, productive view of worry. Specifically, if creating the undesirable outcome in your mind allows you to take steps to prevent it or reduce its impact, then the worry is productive. If not, it is useless and counterproductive. You are simply producing an unwanted experience in the present that could be left in the past, or that might never occur in the future. In general, a state of inner calm is the best place from which to make decisions and take actions, and inner calm by definition excludes worry and anxiety. From that peaceful, centered place you have the fullest and clearest access to the wisdom and the abilities that are uniquely yours which will help guide you to the best possible decision for you at the moment.

So, how can you apply this concept to your life? First ask yourself “Can I do anything to reduce the impact of the event I’m concerned about?” Often the answer is yes. You can do further investigation or preparation on your own, or enlist the advice / guidance of a friend, colleague, or professional counselor. If, for example, you’re unsure about accepting a job offer you might talk to some current or former employees. If you feel unprepared for an upcoming exam you should study more. If your boss is starting to exclude you from meetings it would be smart to update your resume. If you’re worried about marrying someone you might seek pre-marital counseling. In cases where you’re worried about making the wrong decision it might be helpful to go through a “worst case scenario” exercise, exploring the downsides of the range of decisions you might make. There are many other techniques for productively harnessing your anxiety, a fuller explanation of which is beyond the scope of this post.

In other words, worry can have a beneficial effect by goading you to become better prepared. If, on the other hand, you can honestly say that you’ve taken all the steps you can think of to improve your odds of successfully handling an upcoming situation, worrying is counterproductive. Instead, turn to some anxiety-reducing techniques, some of which are outlined in my post of January 21, 2010 entitled “Choosing Your Thoughts”, others of which are contained in the article on this website titled “Changing Your Reality”.

Gaining the ability to step outside of your worry and to view it from the “is it serving me?”perspective is quite simply one of the most valuable tools you can learn. Practice it!

ADDENDUM – Recently I returned home from a cabaret performance only to discover that my wallet was missing. I felt some distress, but in inventorying the contents of what I remembered had been in the wallet, I realized it was “only” about $300, $450 worth of checks, and of course my credit cards, license, and supermarket cards. Seven people were arriving for dinner in an hour, and so I (without too much real effort) focused on preparing for their arrival and also phoned the 3 credit card companies involved to cancel my cards. I never even mentioned it during the dinner party. I know for certain that years ago I would have reacted far more negatively. What’s changed? Constant observation and practice of the principle of today’s post. Without even consciously thinking about it, I knew that worry and upset would accomplish nothing productive, and would in fact only significantly downgrade the enjoyment of my dinner party. The next morning I awoke with the realization that I had changed my jacket on the way out the door to the cabaret (it never occurred to me last night) and looking in the old jacket I discovered my wallet, delighted in that outcome and proud I hadn’t fallen prey to the worrying and drama that a lost wallet could have easily prompted.