Why Worry About Not Worrying?

My daughter told me tonight how she was worried about the lanyard pouch she had left at school in her last class, which had some money and her school ID card. This is the lanyard I told her to write her teacher about when I picked her up, to make sure that when she got to the class late tomorrow it was there and put away. Seemed to make sense to me.

Of course when the teacher didn’t write back to her tonight, doubt and fear crept in, possibly in part from that seed I planted, though she may have come up with it on her own. “What if someone….” Of course I tried to reassure her that having been sent the email, the teacher would probably grab it early. And extolling that most people are honest. “Don’t worry,” I said.

And then I realized that doesn’t help her. It’s a command, not instruction.

Half of “Don’t worry” is worry. Does anybody worry less because they are told to? Unless it’s that great sixties song, “Don’t Worry, Baby,” I think that helps, but that’s probably the music.

What you really need to do is try to start a worry diet. If you want to lose weight, or stop smoking or drinking something too much, the first thing you try is self-control, but humans aren’t good at that at. We obviously put it off so long that we ended up eating, smoking and drinking too much.

What humans are good at, without any practice, is putting things off. Oh, we want, we crave, yet when it’s really important but takes good mental effort, we have the urge to put it off. The best of us can push past that quickly. But we all have the urge.

I say: give in to the urge to put things off sometimes. It’s satisfying to take such control that you can literally do nothing for a moment or hour or day, should you choose. Plus, entropy takes less effort at the start. Gotta love a lazy Sunday, right? Of course recovering from it may take longer: you can quickly roll down a tall hill with relative ease, but getting back to the the top at the same speed is another story.

So what’s the trick? 

Pick what you put off. This concept took me years to figure out. I would have found it sooner but I put it off. I wanted to drink less soda. I won’t. But I will put off getting one by telling myself to drink a glass of water first. And I make it a ritual. This lets me quench my thirst and usually means I drink the soda slower when I get it.And I have half the chance of grabbing a soda instead of water.

What does that have to do with worry? Well, I was worried I might drink too much soda. (I also worry that any soda is too much, but one thing at a time.) It is a process, so there is more than one step.

I worry less when I give myself something else to do, or think about, distract me.

Once I get there, worry is in the entropy zone. Find your thing: exercise, cleaning, stupid tv, or playing music (listening or making can work), or just tell yourself:

  • “I just can’t even.”
  • “I will think about that later.”
  • “I will worry about that in the morning if my lanyard is still missing.”
  • “I’m going to have a soda”

See, if it’s something you need to worry about, the worry or panic or fear or loss will gladly come around again; you didn’t need to worry twice, right?

You will worry a little less, then when you surrender to not caring  for a while, you can forget to worry for longer.

Now if it’s something you have some control over, you can try to do something. Not to worry, but literally, trying to fix something that would you would otherwise worry about is the best distraction from worrying, ever. That’s why we call it being proactive, and not active worrying. Sometimes all you can do is schedule a reminder or write a note so you can take action later. Okay, do that. Take your time doing it. Start immediately, but do it slowly and carefully, maybe even in a silly way.Why leave yourself one voice mail when three will over do it? Several Post-It notes in a circle. Like you’re going to forget.

And you may fail at “Don’t worry.” So what? Who cares but you? Don’t beat yourself up about it. (Now I still laugh at myself when I accidentally hurt myself or fall down, so I am a special case. But that is literally the opposite of not beating yourself up, how can you not laugh at that?) Worrying about worrying is the worst double with cheese, ever.

If it’s important, it will come up again. I accidentally posted this while still writing, and then my website went down. So I found a way to keep writing the missing paragraphs and ignored my thoughts that maybe I don’t have a current backup.. Now the website is back up and I don’t even need to worry about it. Shame it’s too late for a congratulatory soda. You know what? I am going to schedule this post to publish later. Just to practice putting things off.

—David

P.S. You can schedule the times for when you put things off and when you don’t to your benefit. Using my soda story, I don’t wake up and have one; I try to wait until I have been up for a few hours. Since I don’t drink coffee, this means I am not reliant on caffeine in the morning. I may be slouchy and show, but I’m not addicted! And since caffeine has a long half life, unless it’s late weekend night or a special dinner out, I have to get my last soda in before five o’clock in hopes of making me get to bed earlier. (It doesn’t work; I am really good at putting off going to bed.) But I literally have less time for the habit I want to reduce. Imagine applying that to worry time. “Oh, I only worry after lunch.” That sounds relaxing.

P.P.S. Another approach you can try: One of my favorite scenes from the first season of “Lost”: Kate is hiding in trees as a polar bear is trying to attack and she counts to five. Didn’t watch it? Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter. Jack had told Kate earlier about a time he was terrified but still needed to act: “So I just made a choice. I’d let the fear in, let it take over, let it do its thing, but only for five seconds, that’s all I was going to give it. So I started to count: One, two, three, four, five. Then it was gone.”

P.P.P.S. Sometimes you fail. You drink, or you worry, or you fall. Does that mean you give up? No, usually we fail because we didn’t worry enough about the behavior we were trying to change. So don’t worry about it. Now you know you know how not to worry! Just change the approach to take advantage of that. You will try again, when you feel like it. Maybe even try harder.

Or do. There is no try. Because “do not” can be a phase, the phase before “Do.”.

Why Worry About Not Worrying? was originally published on Creative Uploads

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