We all do it at some point, some of us even talk about it. Yet many of us don’t really understand it- worry.
Let’s do a quick experiment, just fill in the blanks with whatever comes to mind. Don’t overthink it, just go with your gut.
- The woman looked ___.
- The man reacted ___.
- The children were ___.
- Their boss seemed ___.
Take a moment to reflect. Reflecting is important because it helps us notice patterns. Pattern recognition is a powerful tool and can be VERY protective in terms of our mental health and bolstering our resilience. It has the ability to transform what on the surface looks like 20 problems, into one problem (or maladaptive habit) that shows up in 20 places. One problem is WAY more manageable than 20!
So back to my question, why do you think you answered as you did?
If you are like most people, you filled in the missing information with your own experiences or experiences you have heard of in your life. We do that in the face of uncertainty too.
We tend to fill our future with our past. Especially in the face of uncertainty.
In other words, we use our past to predict our future.
This is often a way of avoiding the emotions from the past by projecting them into the future.
Let’s say I struggled with isolation in the first wave of the pandemic which contributed to my getting anxious and depressed, as I spent almost all of my waking time on screens (movies, social media, gaming etc), lost any kind of schedule, stopped exercising and ate poorly.
Now that numbers across the country are even higher, and there is an ever-looming threat of returning or worsening restrictions, I may be worried and anxious about how I am I going to do in the next wave. I start anticipating a return of my struggle and depression.
Our minds believe whatever we invest in emotionally and intellectually and our body responds as if it has already been determined I will be anxious and depressed again.
This example illustrates how I have filled my future with my past. I didn’t automatically assume I will use all that I learned through the first wave or that I will actively model my actions on the people who I saw did best through the last round of isolation. Instead, old feelings about how hard the first wave isolation was showed up and I kicked them into the future anticipating it will all happen again, like the movie Groundhog Day. In this way worry, is very disempowering because it makes us feel like our predictions are both 100% accurate and inevitable, reducing our motivation to take active steps to prevent the very thing we are worrying about from happening again.
When we allow ourselves to reflect and sit with emotions from our past, they are less likely to feel so rigid and absolute when we think about our future. There is suddenly more room for an alternative ending, more like a pick your own adventure kind of book rather than the traditional story book format.
- If it is hard to sit with emotions for you, I suggest journaling, talking to a friend about your worries or meditation.
The other key message here, is that worry is often an attempt at control and safety through anticipating or preparing. The difference between actually just anticipating and preparing is that with the latter, we do what we can and let go of the rest. It doesn’t feel “sticky”, we don’t ruminate about it. Those unresolved feelings are the extra ingredient that makes the anticipating stop feeling productive and start feeling stuck. It is like being the extra ingredient that spoils the soup.
So here are 4 Steps to Deal With Worry Constructively
- Make a list of the things you worry about- then reflect to see if there are any themes or patterns?
- Reflect on what past experiences some of those themes may be pulling on.
- Sit with the emotions that come up when you think of those memories. Journal about them. Talk to someone about it. Meditate on it or walk while thinking about it.
- Finally make meaning from your past hurts by asking yourself:
- What did I LOSE from that experience?
- What did I GAIN from that experience? (This one is more theoretical like seeing things from a new perspective or learning a new concept like that other people’s actions are about them, not us)
- What did I LEARN from that experience? (This one is how will your ACTIONS be different in the future).
We are all facing a lot of uncertainty through the pandemic and are having a unique holiday season at best. On the bright side, we can master dealing with worry with all the practice we are getting!