‘Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we’re underneath it?’ ‘Supposing it didn’t,’ said Pooh after careful thought.
A.A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner
Many of us have more of Piglet in our makeup than of Pooh. Our minds come up with a string of alarming possibilities, one worry feeding upon another until, as for Piglet, it becomes impossible to think of anything other than the risks and threats that could lie ahead.
The more we worry, the worse we feel; and the worse we feel, the more we think in an anxious and worried way. We waste time worrying about things that never happen, or that turn out not to be as bad as we had imagined, or that were never that important in the first place. As Montaigne, the French philosopher so aptly put it: ‘My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.’
Some of the ways that worry can affect you
- Keeps you on the lookout for problems, difficulties, or disasters
- Interferes with concentration
- Makes it hard to make decisions
- Makes you less efficient – either over-careful, or unwittingly careless
- Makes you rely more on others and less on yourself
- Leads you to do things less confidently
- Makes you feel out of control
- Makes you feel muddled or confused
- Makes you feel overwhelmed, or that you can’t cope
- Reduces your ability to relax and sleep well
- Makes you physically tense
- Gives you headaches
How to get rid of 90% of your worries
There are three things which are not worth worrying about but which account for the majority of all worries: the unimportant, the unlikely, and the unresolved. Ban these from your life, and you will waste much less time worrying. First you need to recognise them.
1. The unimportant
It is easy to fill our lives with worries about completely trivial things, and even when a worry is not trivial it is often unimportant. When you catch yourself worrying, start to question yourself instead. Ask immediately: ‘How important is the thing that I am worrying about?’
Here are two strategies to help you to answer this question:
- The 100-year rule. Ask yourself, as Samuel Johnson asked his biographer James Boswell, ‘ Will this matter in 100 years from now?’ This is a way of putting your worry into a long-term perspective. Perhaps 100 years seems too long – very little is worth worrying about when looked at from a distance of a 100 years. But this is partly the point. We tend to adopt short-term perspectives that make molehills into mountains. There is nothing special about 100 years. View your worries from various perspectives: a week, a year, a decade. Ask yourself just how important is your worry – how long from now will it stop mattering.
- The calculator. Ask yourself: ‘ Just how much worry is this worth?’ Our resources are limited. We only have so much time, so much energy, so much life. But it is very easy to put too many of these limited resources into the wrong things. Make sure that you do not spend more worry on an issue that it is worth. You need your energy for more important things.
2. The unlikely
Piglet was suffering from the very essence of worry. His mind was filled with all manner of possible horrors and disasters. ‘Supposing that ….,’ ‘What if ….’and their variants are the hallmark of worry and anxiety. ‘Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?’ Of course, it is possible. All kinds of dreadful things could happen today or tomorrow. But most of them are very unlikely. Once you allow yourself to worry about the unlikely, there is no end to worrying. Imagine looking back on a life of worry about the unlikely. It would be a life spoiled by anxiety about things, the vast majority of which never happened. Whenever you catch yourself worrying that something dreadful might happen, answer the Piglet in yourself with Pooh’s reply: ‘Supposing it didn’t.’ Tackling existing problems is quite enough; do not waste energy and happiness on problems which do not exist.
3. The unresolved
Even if the outcome you are worried about is quite likely, there is no point in worrying prematurely. There may be a problem to be treated, but worrying in advance about all the different things it may be is not going to help anyone, and simply stops you from living your life fully.
Dealing with persistent worries
If you were able to rid yourself of worries about the unimportant, the unlikely and the unresolved, the vast majority of your worries would disappear. Of course, this is easier said than done. Some worries will continue to weigh on your mind despite your efforts to keep them at bay. And a few worries really are significant and realistic. There are two kinds of strategies for dealing with persistent and significant worries: strategies for letting them go and strategies for examining them.
- Turn worries into actions. There are two types of things not worth worrying about: those that you can do something about; and those that you can’t. This summarises a simple but very powerful way of approaching persistent worries. Worry is useful when it pushes you to tackle and solve problems which need solving. But you can tackle and solve problems without the unpleasant effect of worry. So, the first step is to turn your worries into problems and then develop strategies for solving them. If nothing can be done, then, in the words of Dale Carnegie, cooperate with the inevitable.
- The worry decision tree. The worry decision tree is a structured way of helping to solve the worry problem. It is a way of asking yourself a branching series of questions and is summarised below.
Worry is such a common part of being human that it is tempting to ask whether it serves a useful function. One reason why it may be so difficult to stop worrying is because we have a sneaking suspicion that some good may come of it, and this sneaking suspicion is hard to ignore. Even though we might say to ourselves and others – ‘Stop worrying. It’s pointless. It won’t do any good.’ There is still something compelling about the process that makes it hard to give up. This is why it is so important to work out what is causing the problem and focusing on what you can do to overcome it.
Remember worrying is like a rocking chair, it keeps you going but gets you nowhere.