This article is part of a series of articles unpacking different emotions. It is inspired by Andrew Fuller’s book, ‘A to Z of Feelings’.
When we worry, our brain goes into a loop. We tend to worry about the same things over and over again. Worrying is not the same as caring. It is not the same as solving a problem. The people we worry about are no better off, nor are we. It is like spinning the wheels on a car and going nowhere fast.
If worries just visited us once they wouldn’t be an issue. If we could just think to ourselves ‘Oh, I’m worrying about (insert issue)’ and that was the end of it, all would be ok. The trouble is, worries are such insistent pests. They move into our heads, make a lot of noise and demand attention. Worrying alone can be sleepless and repetitive, but sharing a worry can seem to amplify it. At times, there seems to be no escape from this loopy form of thinking. Worrying can alert us to potential threats but it is a largely useless activity. Robert Sapolsky neatly unpacks the psychology of stress.
The hyper-connected world has also amplified a form of anxiety called status anxiety. This is an anxiety about what others think of us. Are we successful, are we popular, are we winning, are we loved. Social media seems to give us data on this based on how many likes and followers we have. Although very few will admit it, many of us seek love and respect from others. This ambition makes us hyper-sensitive to the words and actions of others, and setbacks on this journey can be heartbreaking. When we let someone down or fail to impress someone it can be intensely painful. Much of our worries become tied up entirely on what we think others think of us or will think of us.
Dr Robert Sapolsky provides interesting insight into how stress and the body works in his talk, ‘Stress Response: Saviour to a Killer’ (for the full documentary click here). In summary, stress response occurs with any perceived threat to our state of homeostasis (being steady with the right body temperature, glucose levels etc.). You’re a zebra, you see a hungry lion and the stress response is turned on to pump adrenaline and other stress hormones so your reflexes are sharpened, your muscles respond immediately and unnecessary parts of your body are switched off. Stress is designed for that three minute period where you are running for your life in the Savanna. For 99% of mammals in this world, stress starts and stops there. However, humans turn on those same stress responses purely for psychological reasons, thinking about exams, public speaking, relationships, work and more. Humans have the capacity to elicit anticipatory stress, which is not just stressing because you see a lion but it is stressing about the possibility of turning the corner and seeing a lion. We can do this so often that eventually the stress response is more damaging than the stressor itself.
Fear, suspicion, paranoia, tiredness, overwhelmed, powerlessness, lack of control, vulnerable, helpless, type A personality, hopeless, unsafe, narcissism, guilt, anxiety
What you can do that helps
- Many of our worries are tied up in future outcomes out of our control. Will they like me or not? Will I pass the exam? Will I get the job? These are questions we don't know the answer to... we must narrow our focus to that which we can control. The key to this is to focus on the process and not the outcome. You can control how much effort you put into your studies, you can't control what you will get in the exam.
- Start by asking yourself what am I worried about and what is the worst thing that can happen. The idea with this is not to eliminate what is worrying us but to become braver in the face of it. If we play out the worst case scenario in our head, we recognise that regardless of what happens, we will get through it.
- We need relief from the pressures of notifications. Be strict in identifying non-essential notifications and mute them. You can dictate when you will tune in for the updates. To start with, make a commitment of doing this for one day a week. Make the effort to gradually progress from there.
- Recognise that worry and excitement are physiologically the same. What changes is our perspective. The excitement you have around going on a rollercoaster is the same as the worry you feel about presenting in front of 20 people.
The next time you get worried, ask yourself what can I control here and what can’t I control.
Wishing you well on your wellbeing journey!