I was recently making my Thanksgiving plans and called my mom to check with her about coming up to visit. My parents live in northern Michigan, so late November can be a rough time to go visit. But I was also born and raised there, so I know what to expect.
After talking for a bit about it with my mom, she told me that I didn’t need to feel any pressure about going to visit, especially since the roads might be bad, and she didn’t want me to have to drive through any snow. If any of my clients had told me that, I would have probably paused our conversation to discuss their worry and look at what they can and cannot control. But, I chose not to put on my “therapist hat” with my mom and instead just told her that I would be careful regardless of whether I decided to drive up to see my parents or not.
In my experience, worry is one of the most common thoughts that we have. I recently had a client tell me that the client thought people would have less to worry about the older they got, but instead this client’s worry has grown as more responsibilities have been added.
We all worry. Kids worry about their parents getting mad at them when they disobey or make a mistake. Teens worry about what grades they made on a test, if their crush likes them or if they are going to fit in. Adults worry about everything: work, money, family, friends, kids and just about anything else that could go wrong.
When addressing our worry, it’s important to recognize that there are some situations in which our worry is productive, but that the vast majority of the time, it doesn’t help.
For example, your worry about your car running out of gas might help you to fill up your tank before you get stranded on the side of the road. That’s a situation in which worry motivates you to do something productive about the situation. After you’ve filled up your tank, you probably don’t worry that you’re going to run out of gas until your gas light turns on again. While sometimes our worry is productive, most of our worries are about things that are out of our control. Farmers worry about whether the rain will hold off, but no amount of worrying is going to ever stop the rain. My mom’s worry about me driving up to Michigan in late November has no effect on whether I have safe travels or not.
One of the things that many people struggle with when talking about worry is that we sometimes think that if we don’t worry about something, then it means that we don’t care about it. For example, my mom cares about my safety, so she worries about me driving home. But, worry and care don’t have to go hand in hand. I can care for someone’s safety and still not worry about whether or not he or she is safe. It doesn’t mean that I hope for something bad to happen to that person, it’s just that I recognize that I have no control in most situations, and my worry isn’t productive.
So, if you find yourself consumed with worry, begin to look at whether your worry is productive and brings about resolution to a problem (such as filling up your gas tank) or is about something outside of your control and simply adds to your stress. Work on accepting the fact that there are things outside of your control and acknowledging that they may happen.
When my clients present a worry about something, instead of assuring them that it won’t happen, I often ask them what they would do if it actually did happen. While it might seem scary to actually think about our greatest fears, we begin to see that many of our worries are about small things.
And for the big worries that we have (about the safety of those we love or the ability to provide for ourselves and our families), we have to remind ourselves that we cannot control those things and to focus on enjoying the present moment. After all, it’s the only moment that we can live in.
• Mischa McCray is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist. Send questions or topics you’d like him to discuss to email@example.com.