Why we love to worry (especially about children) and why we shouldn’t

Worries are those thoughts we have where we predict the future – but not in a good way.  We predict that something bad is going to happen and because our brain is thinking about something bad or threatening, the rest of our body can get worked up, too.  So, we can start to feel quite ill and uptight as our body changes from a relaxed position, with all its parts working steadily in combination, to a position where it is ready for battle danger– tense, not digesting, breathing rapidly, heart beat rising and our brain not thinking clearly.

Indeed, some people do get “worried sick”.

Usually, worries take the form of “what if…..” thinking.  “What if”….then insert something pretty terrible here.  For parents, who worry about their children, the worries may be “what if they are abducted”, “what if they get in with a wrong crowd”, “what if I’m parenting wrong”, “what if all of that screen time is causing them brain damage?”…there are so many possible negative “what ifs” and some people can generate lots of them.

Despite how awful people feel when they worry, some people find it hard to stop worrying.  Worrying can become chronic and severely interfere with the lives of people making it hard for them to think at work or school, causing sleep problems and getting in the way of relationships.  When worry is clinically significant, psychologists and mental health professionals may refer to it a Generalised Anxiety Disorder or GAD.

People who regularly worry can find it very hard to still their minds.  Often, it can be very difficult to convince them to let go of their worries.  It can take concerned friends and family members, or even psychologists, a lot of effort to convince someone to work on reducing their worry.

Despite knowing that their worries are causing them excess distress, some people love their worries very much.

From my experience of working with those who worry, there are three good reasons why people can fall in love with their worry.

  • Reason 1 – worry feels like problem solving.

Worry is about predicting the future in a negative way and it almost feels that to some people, if they just worry about a predicted problem, they may be able to sort it out.  However, worry is very different to problem solving.  Good problem solving is about identifying a problem, weighing up possible solutions and then carefully analysing the pros and cons of each solution until you pick the best solution and try it.  Worry tends not to be this organised and it rarely arrives at a satisfying outcome.  Often, people who worry think about a future problem and then get stuck in their thoughts at that most troubling point – kind of like watching a scary movie but getting it stuck in the most frightening part.  It means that the body is tense and the brain is not thinking as clearly as when it is relaxed and logical.  If you find yourself worrying about something you’d like to fix, stop the worry stream and grab a pen and paper.  Write the problem down clearly, generate a range of possible solutions and pick the best one to implement.

  • Reason 2 – some people think that worry prepares them to outsmart danger

Some people believe that, if they worry, they will be able to predict all bad options and therefore be able to outsmart or out-think any danger – like worry is preparing us for dangers ahead.  Worry certainly does prepare the body for danger or threat, but usually this is well before our body needs to be in threat mode. Worry also has the ability to make us over-estimate the chances of a bad things happening in the future so we can get all het up about something that has a very low chance of ever happening.

In threat mode our body is prepared to run, fight or freeze.  When there is a threat our bodies will automatically kick into the fight and flight response.  The fight and flight response does not need to be kept in a “half on” position in order to work.  We can be totally relaxed, swinging in a hammock by a relaxing pool and our body will still take care of us by switching into fight and flight if a threat arrives at that moment.  Turning on fight and flight and getting ourselves upset ahead of time with worry, only helps to wear us out by getting out body prepared before we need to take any physical action or when we may never actually need to take action.  It’s like worry makes us travel forward in time like some sort of really awful time machine to visit only the troubling places and not the joyful ones.  It can help people who worry to try to practice strategies that help them stay “in the moment”, mindful and relaxed.

  • Reason 3 – some people believe that by worrying about someone they are loving them

For some people, it feels that by worrying about someone, they might be putting a protective shield around them.  But worry does not allow us to have super-human abilities. To worry about someone is not the same as loving them. In fact, too much worry can make us uptight in the presence of others.  It can lead us to nag them and hassle them and it can definitely bring the mood down in a household.  If you love someone, isn’t it better to wish them joy and wonderment in life’s adventures rather than to constantly remind them of all the negative outcomes you anticipate for their future?  It’s better to just love your special people and share acts of love rather than to worry about them.

So, if you catch yourself worrying, perhaps ask yourself whether you are really having a good time and whether you really think it will change the outcomes for anyone that you love.

If you think you need some extra help to get out of the habit or pattern of chronic worry, your General Practitioner can refer you to a psychologist if she or he thinks that is the best path for you.

oh, and if you are noticing that someone little in your life is starting to worry, perhaps you could share “Worries are Like Clouds” with them.

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