Are You Worried?
Last week my youngest daughter was visiting for the holidays and she bent my ear about her worries. In order to pursue a nurse practitioner degree, she took out major student loans. She shared with me her apprehension—how would she pay them back? How would her loans impact her quality of life? Would she be able to afford to have children? And the list went on. I listened—and I could hear her angst.
Earlier in the week, a teenage student told me about her worries. She had experienced humiliation and embarrassment in middle school because of a health problem. Now in High School she found herself fearful that she would have the same experience once again. Sunday nights were pure hell.
Another friend faced an unexpected, huge repair bill. He worried about how he would be able to buy the Christmas gifts he felt obliged to purchase. How would he make Christmas a great holiday for his family?
Later last week, I was worried about how I was going to accomplish all I had to do at work! Paperwork, blog posts, staff evaluations, budgets, etc.---the long list went on!
Fritz Perl, MD, a famous psychiatrist, observed that anxiety “was the gap between the present and the future”. When we worry, our mind is focused on the future, not on the present. Our attention, like a spotlight, is fixated on tomorrow—not today.
Is that a bad thing?—not necessarily. Future thinking can help you prepare a plan to navigate through and around potential roadblocks. Looking at a map before you embark on a road trip is a good idea! Putting together a disaster preparedness kit with water and food is wise planning—especially if you live in an active earthquake zone! It is not very useful to stick your head in the sand and hope that everything will be okay.
But worry is different. It creates a pit on your stomach that interferes with your wellbeing. It brings you out of the “now”, which is where we live and breathe. It brings you into the unborn future which has no form or substance. It doesn’t even exist (yet). And in that non-existent space, we imagine forces and fixtures that will knock us down. Worry appears to us like “work” that we are doing that will tame the hungry tigers of the future! It does not help to tell yourself “don’t worry—everything will be ok”! (This we all have noticed!) Giving yourself a firm talking to (we call that “self-talk”) does not give you comfort. Reassurance is not useful. So what does help?
When I was 21, I was going off to graduate school in San Francisco. I was terrified! I didn’t know anyone, had very little money to live on, and didn’t know the city at all. My parents told me “Don’t worry—you will be fine”. I was not comforted. But my good friend Colin, listened to my fears, and remarked-- “The first 6 months or so will be very hard. But after a time, you will start to feel more confident and comfortable. Everything will become more familiar”. I felt a sense of immediate relief. Of course, he was right. It would be difficult at first, but would get easier in time.
In the moment, when faced with challenges, we draw upon our own resources and inner strengths. We ask for help from others. We locate previously unknown assets in real time. Unanticipated opportunities present themselves. We put one foot in front of the other and move forward. We get up when we are knocked down. We plot a path, evaluate its probability of success, and make choices. If we are blown back by strong winds, we find another course. These human qualities-- persistence, the use of trial and error (very inefficient but effective), and learning from our mistakes, moves us out of tough times. This all happens in the present, in the here and now—not in the future.
It is the combination of being prepared (I was a boy scout too!), having realistic expectations (Yes, it will be hard), and having confidence in your inner strengths and resources that helps us live the challenging moment.