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An Ode to Worry

Worry deserves to be respected. When something nags at us, we should heed it.

Key points

  • Worry can often be inspired by one's intuitive sense, and should be respected for that reason.
  • Worry differs from anxiety in that it is specific. Anxiety tends to be pervasive and much harder to pin down.
  • Techniques to deal with worry include purposefully amplifying it and writing the concerns down.

Worry deserves to be respected. When something nags at us, we should heed it — sit down with it, hear it out, give it our focus — even when this is the last thing we want to do. Drinking it away, or any kind of evasion, brings immediate relief but at the cost of our burdens getting worse. Learning to embrace worry is a life skill that pays us back many times over with peace of mind.

Distinguishing worry from anxiety

Anxiety is a different story. It tends to be pervasive, visceral, and much harder to pin down. Its tendrils tend to reach deeply into childhood, far beyond the reach of reason or concrete action. What does help is physical activity, like taking a vigorous walk, and putting our focus elsewhere. Thus, worry and anxiety call for opposite responses, and this can be confusing. Making the effort to distinguish them is the necessary prelude to arriving at the right approach.

At times, the source of worry may seem too vague or inconsequential to take seriously. For instance, there may be someone we keep thinking about even though we’re not in regular contact with this person. The persistence of ruminating about this person doesn’t seem to make sense. When this happens to me, I like to call just to check in. At the very least, I find out that everything is OK and that my fretting had no basis. Often enough, the person tells me that my timing is fortunate, that in fact there was something that they were wanting to tell me.

We may know more than we think we know. We may have picked up on a tone of sadness when we last spoke to that person, a catch in their voice. There might have been a random remark in a text or email that stayed with us because it was out of character or kindled a quiet intuition that refused to subside. There are levels of communication that occur between the lines, beyond words, that feel uncanny and yet clue us in to something real.

The things we worry about in the dark of the night are like that. Something that slips beneath our daytime notice may be right there in the foreground at 2 a.m., having become prominent once the centrality of other involvements receded. I was once a few days into a trip across the country when the worry seized me in the middle of the night that maybe I hadn’t turned on the faucet for my automatic timer that was to keep my tomato plants watered while I was gone. I emailed a neighbor to check for me and it turned out that she did have to turn on the faucet. Honoring the worry rather than rebuffing it meant I came home to thriving plants two weeks later.

How to respond to worry

I’m not suggesting that we succumb to the tyranny of every worry. That which nags at us may be more irrational than prescient. Finding a middle path between banishing our worries and being overly constrained by them is necessary.

Instead of dismissing a worry, I have found it useful to do the opposite — to amplify it. I ask myself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen if I don’t do something about this?” I grant the worry a louder voice instead of enduring the low-level humming in the background which is as annoying as it is fruitless. Are there some reasonable concerns here that I really should mull over?

Wendy Lustbader
Lines of age on a tree trunk
Source: Wendy Lustbader

Calming down and thinking clearly is useful, especially as one worry often brings along others. Grabbing a piece of paper and jotting down whatever is coming to mind usually helps. I find it’s best to break my fretting down into its component pieces and think about steps that I can take to address each concern head-on, one at a time. Otherwise, feeling overwhelmed by a host of sub-worries can defeat any strategy of discernment.

A friend who was in a frenzy of worry about unpaid bills finally gave herself a single concrete action to take: I can call the doctor’s billing office and negotiate a payment plan, then I won’t get that penalty added to my account again. After she accomplished this, she reduced her cable bill by two-thirds through one call to customer service in which she threatened to cancel the whole service if she didn’t get a significant discount. She then went on to secure a reduced rate on her electric bill by establishing that she qualified for a special program, something she had long intended to do. That night, she was able to sleep through the night for the first time in a while.

When things are out of our control

Translating worry into concrete action isn’t always possible. Some things are out of our control. Distinguishing spheres of action where we can make a difference from the arenas where things are stacked against us is crucial. For instance, switching from a commercial bank to a community credit union might reduce service fees considerably, as compared to the futility of arguing with a big bank about their fee structure.

The knowledge beneath explicit awareness

Once, my rumination was about my car’s brake pads. The car wasn’t yet due for a brake job, but I kept picturing an upcoming backpacking trip in the mountains. Over and over, I was visualizing driving back down from the trailhead after the hike, negotiating those treacherous switchbacks on steep forest service roads. I decided it was worth it to ease my mind and have the brake job done “early,” prior to the trip. The mechanic remarked that I must have been doing more city driving than usual because it really was time to replace those brake pads. Here again, the knowledge beneath my explicit awareness had been prompting the worry. As I approached each hairpin turn without guardrails while descending that mountain road, I was glad I had respected my worry.

Copyright: Wendy Lustbader, 2021