Breaking the Worry Habit
January 15, 2014
Worry is a misuse of the imagination. ~Dan Zadra
Katherine worried. She worried about what to eat for dinner. She worried about the offhanded comment she’d made to Mia at lunch about The Ex-Boyfriend. She worried about the emergent ticking noise in her car’s engine. She worried about completing the quarterly budget report on time. She worried about her mother becoming infirm, about the longevity of her career, and the impending visit of her husband’s obnoxious sister. Spent at the end of a day, Katherine distracted herself by watching random TV shows, only to wake up the next morning fatigued from the flurry of anxious dreaming. When she paused long enough to notice her feelings, her worry habit would allow only for more worrying, and solutions to her anxiety grew as remote as Jupiter’s moons.
Anxiety disorders number among the most common mental illnesses in the United States. Chronic worrying stifles a person’s ability to relax physically, emotionally and mentally and, in addition to deleterious health effects, worry squanders energy and stonewalls the creative life. While all worry cannot be classified as mental illness, inveterate worry is at best a failure of imagination. Worriers focus on worst-case scenarios, a strict category of possibilities amidst an unregarded, limitless field of potential outcomes. Victims of both capitalist and political fearmongers, Westerners learn early to regard life with suspicion and caution so that we trust neither others nor ourselves and worry follows us everywhere.
In a groundbreaking study led by Matt Killingsworth in the Track Your Happiness project, data show that when the mind wanders into its 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day, it regularly defaults into negative scenario concerning the regrettable past, the uncertain future, and the “…only if…” fantasizing that keeps happiness at a distance. His findings affirm what Eastern spiritual philosophies have promoted for millennia: dwell in the present and happiness is yours. Worry is merely a mental habit and habits can be broken.
A week after she submitted her quarterly report and two days after her sister-in-law departed, Katherine came down with a flu so severe her husband admitted her to the hospital. For several days she drifted through a sickly haze, fear hovering ever near. As her health slowly returned, she recognized a shift had sprung within her, an unspoken awareness that her anxiety was ruining her life. She began to consider approaching her life with more presence, to reevaluate what truly mattered to her. Her unconscious habit of dread slid into the light of consciousness.
Americans have had a heavy burden to bear. As a world superpower, we are made to feel we must all do our part to keep the machine running. Yet since the economy crashed in 2007, so has our credit rating, gross national product, reputation, and ‘the good life.’ Outsourced jobs and Wall Street loopholes have shaken our faith in the national work ethic, but worry keeps us in check—worry that we’ll lose our jobs if we don’t work that 70-hour week, that we’ll lose our partners, be separated from our children, be left out in the literal cold. As the specters of ill fate crowd in, our connection to mystery, curiosity and creativity are effectively shoved out. We become sad automatons, shutting down just to survive, watching more television, drinking more, eating more to comfort and distract ourselves, and thus checking out of actual living.
In Katherine’s case, her illness served as a messenger, a missive from her spirit for re-visioning, to reclaim her lost soul. According to Malidoma Patrice Somé, a West African shaman, mental disorders are equated with spiritual crisis, a call that must be heeded for true healing or happiness to become attainable. The rational, linear model of materialism depends on the denial of spirit and aims to medicate the symptoms rather than address the source of crisis. When Katherine had no choice but to slow down, she reconnected with a longing that her present life was not addressing. She recalled unscheduled afternoons in her twenties when she called up friends for music jams and played into the night. She remembered Sunday strolls through the park where time walked alongside her in companionable silence rather than in breathless, noisy threat. She felt she was tapping into some forgotten part of who she had always been.
Worry is an action, albeit an insentient, ineffective one. When we curb the deluge of worst-case scenario, we can ask ourselves a few simple questions: What power do I have in this situation? What actions can I take for the best possible outcome? What else can I let go of in this circumstance? This line of questioning contributes more than a piddling topical ointment of positive thinking to default negativity; rather it is a volitional employment of present-moment focus, a shifting of the unskilled mind toward more creative, open-handed solutions.
Dr. Christine Valters Paintner assures us in The Relationship Between Spirituality and Artistic Expression: Cultivating the Capacity for Imagining, “Creativity is about honoring another kind of intelligence that originates from within us rather than from outside sources.” Creativity is the direct application of imagination or original thinking, distinct from the myriad of recycled thoughts many of us engage in. It is an enticement to tune in, to listen to the other voices present within us, to appreciate and express the spectrum of human emotion as a way to give our lives meaning. As long as we’re on the worry hook creativity will hide from us, and our thoughts, emotions and actions will remain uninspired. Both ancient and modern sages overwhelmingly recommend meditation for its singular ability to overwrite rutted patterns of being through learning the skill of presence. In the simple, yet certainly not easy, practice of stillness, we watch as thoughts arise. The worrisome ones are the most distracting. Through our premeditated intention of focus, we recognize we are thinking, we let go and return to the breath, the mantra or whatever object we have designated for our time in practice. We apply this method over and over again, willfully turning our focus away from the worry and moving into presence. It is in this space that the intelligence of creativity is born and the habit of worry loses its grip.
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