on worrying

Note: I am not a mental health professional. I am just somebody who has been agonized by terrible anxiety and worrying and this piece is based on my experiences.

I remember being called a “worrywart” when I was just a kid. I hated tornadoes and always worried about getting trapped in them and (as terrible as this is) dying in one. I researched them and tried to understand the weather formations and warning signs before they would happen, believing that that would provide me a semblance of control over the ultimate outcome. As I grew older, I used this same strategy with CF. I still use this strategy with CF. Humans and their elevated consciousness like the feeling of playing God and understanding what, how, and why things are the way they are. But does this really reduce worrying or provide that much of a benefit?

Let’s consider something. Say there is scenario pp is a bad scenario – for the sake of continuing with the example, let’s say p is a tornado happening (we don’t have to delve into the spectrum of possibilities like a tornado destroying your house or putting you in danger, let’s just say it is happening in your region and we don’t know what is going to happen). There are two possibilities worth considering, p and not p; either a tornado is going to happen or it isn’t.

For young Tré, it felt that the future was already decided, so my anxiety convinced me  tornado was going to happen, scenario p, so I would worry endlessly. In the time leading up to p or not p happening, I chose to worry (worrying isn’t so much a choice as it is a habit, but we’ll get to that). Here, we’ll label the act of worrying as w. So in the lead up, there were two choices, w and not w.

Ultimately, there were four possibilities:

  1. w and p; worrying about a tornado and a tornado actually happening

  2. nw and pnot worrying about a tornado and a tornado actually happening

  3. w and np; worrying about a tornado and a tornado not happening

  4. nw and npnot worrying about a tornado and a tornado not happening

To be clear: worrying about a tornado absolutely, unequivocally did not determine if a tornado happened or not. (Also of note: Worrying about a tornado is different than being aware that there is a risk of a tornado happening. Being aware of one means preparing for it, then waiting; Worrying means preparing, then obsessively thinking and concerning one’s self with it happening.) As long as one is prepared when there is a risk, worrying will change nothing.

So we can then rank those possibilities from the time before until said event passed, by order of the most beneficial or sensical. This is subjective, but I think most people would agree with my assessment. Bear with me. My rankings are as followed:

  1. nw and npnot worrying about a tornado and a tornado not happening

  2. nw and pnot worrying about a tornado and a tornado actually happening

  3. w and p; worrying about a tornado and a tornado actually happening

  4. w and np; worrying about a tornado and a tornado not happening

In my assessment, I’ve ranked the nw (not worrying) options as the top two, no matter if a tornado happens or not (obviously assume that no severe damage happens, since in most tornado warnings in Cincinnati, you don’t lose your house or get injured; I’ve spent countless hours worried about tornadoes and have never had any concrete damage happen to my life from them, even after living in Indiana). 

The controversial part of the rankings would probably be #3 and #4. I’ve ranked worrying and a tornado happening as the worst of the scenarios (again assuming there was no damage from said tornado). The reason I consider that to be the worst is because, not only did a tornado happen that worrying did absolutely nothing to prevent, we wasted precious time preoccupied with a fear that was out of our control. This is where worrying becomes something within our control. In my life, I consider time to be precious, so the time spent worrying is time I value as less than time I spent not worried, which is why time spent worried about an outcome that never ended up happening is precious time dearly wasted. For the sake of this strategy to help with worrying, I do not believe it is necessary to evaluate the countless varying possible scenarios where a tornado does happen and there’s little damage all the way up to a fatality due to a tornado. Allowing our mind to exercise its creativity by imagining all the possible scenarios only indulges our worst impulses.

Before I go further in my assessment, I want to be clear: I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, so I’m fully aware of how anxiety is not simple worrying. I’ve been treated for it and Xanax has been a huge ally of mine in moments of deep anxiety. It’s still our responsibility to learn how to navigate our anxiety, how to interrupt those negative thinking patterns and rabbit holes, and how to prevent ourselves from indulging our irrational tendencies. I will say that chronic worrying as a kid (I wasn’t officially diagnosed until last year) may have blossomed to anxiety disorder as an adult.

This thought experiment hinges on a couple of things. First, it hinges on the possible scenario that we’re likely anxious about being out of our control. This includes upcoming appointments, a plane flight, some unforeseen future event that our anxious mind concocts, or really anything else. Secondly, this assumes we’ve done everything we can to absolve ourself of responsibility or control over the future event. This thought experiment does not endorse simply doing nothing for things we’re anxious about. If you have a strange spot on your face that could be malignant, worrying alone will change nothing. The correct thing to do is to schedule an appointment to get it checked out, make sure you’re keeping it covered in the mean time, going to said appointment, then chatting with your doctor and waiting for the results. Once an appointment is scheduled or the results have been sent out, the future scenario is out of your control, so worried time is time wasted or spent poorly. The cool thing about this strategy is that everything is out of your control once you’ve taken the necessary steps to alleviate your responsibility, so worrying, which is a habit, begins to fade away with practice.

I fully recognize this is not simple. Like I mentioned above, anxiety and worrying are habits that we find ourselves entrenched in. Some people have genetic predispositions to anxiety or were raised in extraordinarily tense environments which have had long-lasting effects. To get better about our anxious tendencies, it is on ourselves, once we’ve gotten the appropriate medical treatment, to develop the skillsets needed to make our lives better. This is primarily for ourselves, nobody else (though others in our circles that are affected or concerned about our anxiety will benefit).

My idea on this is based on experience. More often than not, I have allowed myself to indulge myself in irrational tendencies. I’ve heard one too many times the dangerous mantra “Expect the best, prepare for the worst” (Fine, I will recognize preparation is good; It is good to be prepared for bad scenarios, but balancing preparation with expectations is a delicate skill that this strategy will help with). I’ve allowed myself to believe that somehow preparing for the worst case scenario will alleviate myself of impending disappointment, but inevitably, if that bad thing happens, I’m still sad and disappointed, both at the outcome and at the fact that I wasted the time already sad about the end outcome when I didn’t have to be. (Ignorance is bliss!) Worrying didn’t bring that outcome, so why not have spent it happily?!

Alternatively, if that bad outcome never comes to fruition but I spent days to weeks worried that it would, I’m finally thrilled and relieved when it doesn’t. Then I reflect and realize that time spent worrying was wasted since the scenario never happened and worrying didn’t, in fact, prevent it!

Look, I understand worrying and anxiety are both debilitating and make life hard on almost all of us. I’ve been there and still struggle with it every single day of my life. Journaling has helped a lot, especially when I write about my worries and why they are or aren’t likely to come true. I don’t think this is simple and easily prevented, though I wish it were. This strategy has recently provided me a lot of respite from my daily battles with anxiety and stress. It, like most other types of cognitive behavioral therapy, is difficult and requires lots of long-term effort. I encourage you to give a try, and be easy on yourself when you start recognizing those destructive patterns. Just understanding they exist is one of the most important first steps.

To sum all of this up: When evaluating a possible bad scenario, consider first the steps you can take to prevent or prepare (within reason!) for that scenario. Once those steps have been taken and there is nothing else you can do, try to allow yourself to not worry, telling yourself that worrying itself will do nothing, aside from rob – from yourself – the current time you have to exist relatively peacefully. Then, whatever outcome happens, use that as an example to teach yourself that worrying did not prevent nor cause the outcome to happen, so the time was better spent enjoying the moment or forgetting your worries and focusing on things within your control. 

Give it a try. I’d encourage you to write it all down. Writing and journaling are so valuable. Anxiety and worrying suck, but we’re all in this together.