Do you struggle with worrying? Have you ever called yourself (or been called) a worry wart? Have you ever wondered how some people can live so seemingly carefree while you are almost always thinking and analyzing every possible thing that could happen?
When talking about worrying, it is important to recognize that everyone worries. Maybe it’s about finances, a relationship, school, work, if we are going to heaven or hell, if something bad is going to happen to us or our children, or how we look.
No matter what, though, there is something that we all worry about. The difference between people who feel like they are constantly worrying and those who seem to be carefree is in the things that they worry about and how they handle their worrisome thoughts.
First, let’s look at the different types of things that people worry about. There are certain things that make sense to worry over, which we will call productive worries. An example of this would be worrying about if your car is going to run out of gas when you are on empty or if you are getting the flu when you start feeling feverish.
Productive worries help us create a plan for how to resolve the problems that might happen. If I’m running out of gas, I recognize that I need to stop at the next available gas station to refuel. If I’m feeling feverish, I might take my temperature or call my doctor to see what I can do to get healthy. When we have productive worries, our worries push us to make a plan to fix our concern, ultimately alleviating our worry by fixing the issue. Once we have filled up our gas tank or taken our temperature and found out that we aren’t sick, we stop worrying because we have addressed our concern.
Unproductive worries are those concerns that don’t have a fixed ending and thus end up pushing us into a seemingly never ending cycle of fear and anxiety.
“What if the doctor was wrong that my heart’s healthy?” or, “What will happen if the airplane crashes?” are types of unproductive worrying. In these examples, our worrying doesn’t push us into a plan to fix our situation but rather keeps us in a state of fear.
What separates those people who worry all the time from those who seem so nonchalant about their lives?
It isn’t that some people only have productive worries while others have both. Instead, it is that some people are able to recognize that they are helpless to change their unproductive worries and thus they do not continue to worry about them. These people still have unproductive worries, but when they have them, they are able to acknowledge them for what they are — a fear that could happen but is outside of their control. While they recognize that something bad could happen, they also know that their worrying about it will do nothing to change the event or their ability to react to it.
Conversely, those people who hold on to their unproductive worries tend to view their worrying as preparing them to be ready for a big catastrophe. For example, they think that their worrying about losing their job helps them to plan for what they would do if it actually happened. Some people might see their worry as a way to show their love and care for someone. “I have to worry about my child, because I care about them,” is a common refrain that I hear when people talk about their anxiety. Many times, people who frequently worry don’t realize that just because they had a worrisome thought doesn’t mean that it is any more likely to happen. They think that since they are worried about it they must give it their mental attention.
If you are struggling with worry and want to work on minimizing its impact on your life, start asking yourself the question “so what” when you begin thinking “what if.”
For example, if you think “What if my child fails the fourth grade?” work on thinking “so what would I do if that happened?”
Ultimately our worry is rooted in the fear of an event. If we can recognize that our lives will continue to move on even if the event occurs, we can hopefully reduce the power our worrying has over us.
• 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.