Worry can be tricky. On the mild end, it can be interpreted as helpful or caring and can help a student ace their science quiz by over-preparing. On the other hand, it can become a ruthless dictator that rules your life. Worry is repetitive and masks itself as problem-solving, when it is actually the exact opposite! Engaging with worry causes more worry. I often tell my clients it’s like fertilizing the weeds. It’s sneaky and may begin negatively affecting your mental and physical health without you even realizing it. Sometimes people aren’t consciously aware of just how much they worry. Chronic worry can have devastating effects, both mentally and physically.
Worry becomes problematic when it interrupts sleep, concentration, task completion, avoidance of school or work, or it interferes with relationships, among other intrusions in one’s daily life. Because worry is an internal process that affects the mind and body, it can also cause short and long term illness: digestive issues, fatigue, and headaches, as well as compromised immune system, short term memory loss, coronary artery disease, and heart attacks to name a few.
The good news? Worry is easily disarmed. It’s straightforward to treat and can be put in its place. You might say “I’ve been a worrier all my life – just like my mother and my grandmother were. I don’t know how to not worry.” If this is you, you’re not alone. No one who worries can actually not worry. To stop worrying is not the goal.
I’m reminded of the poem by William Carlos Williams called “The Red Wheelbarrow” originally published in the book Spring and All (1923):
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
If I told you to not think about the color of the wheelbarrow or the chickens while you read this poem, could you? Likewise, no one can tell you not to worry, not even yourself. Worry will be there. We can’t help what thoughts come to mind, but we can use discretion by choosing what thoughts to entertain, which ones we give merit to, and which ones guide our behavior.
When we define a mental health concern as a part of us, as opposed to our identity, the concern automatically becomes more manageable. Anxiety expert Lynn Lyons teaches that we should identify our “worry part,” give it a name and effectively put it in its place. Don’t avoid it or try to not think about it, and definitely don’t let it convince you that it should infiltrate your life! Rather, acknowledge that it’s there and that it’s just one part of you. Identify the healthier parts of yourself as well. Talk to your worry as if it’s someone or something you don’t have time for. Just as you resist or choose not to watch a scene in a movie or a television show you don’t care for, you can choose not to engage with your worry part. With practice and perseverance, and the help of a therapist if needed, you can stop being a “worrier” and start to preserve your health, your relationships, and your life.
Lynette Spencer is a licensed clinical social worker and the managing partner at Action Consulting and Therapy in Geneva, IL.